Meet the Mayans

I first met the Mayans back in high school. I think I ran into them in my freshman-year world history course, though truth be told I remember nothing of whatever I learned. In my consciousness, they just became part of a jumble of Olmecs and Toltecs and other people who once rocked in Mesoamerica.

After Steve and I moved to San Diego and started traveling in Mexico (mid- to late-70s), we visited some Aztec archeological sites and one Mayan area (the Yucatán peninsula), and I became more aware that Mayans and Aztecs differed significantly. I must have learned some of the details of their differences. But all that detailed knowledge also evaporated.

We started meeting Mayans from Day One of this trip. And the startling thing has been: they appear to be living, breathing people speaking Mayan languages, dressing as their ancestors did (at least the women), and seeing themselves as part of a contemporary culture whose roots go back to about a thousand years before Christ. Who knew?

Visiting Tikal last Tuesday kick-started my education (or re-education) on just how amazing the golden age of Mayan civilization was. At its peak 1300 years ago (when Europe was slogging unimpressively through its Dark Ages), Tikal was home to at least 250,000 people, maybe more. Much of the area they inhabited is still buried under thick jungle. Throughout the centuries, the Mayans did some warring and practiced some human sacrifice (though that was basically what Americans today would call capital punishment; a matter of killing captives.) Compared to the blood-thirsty Aztecs and Incas, they look like Quakers.

Instead of plundering, they concentrated on things like architecture and astronomy, fields in which they achieved astonishing sophistication. It’s a jaw-dropping experience to be strolling through the jungle and come to a clearing containing some massive structure as tall as a 20-story building. Tikal contains several of these. Some are astronomical observatories, some temples, some palaces.The Mayans developed an advanced (base 20) mathematical system, and a hieroglyphic writing system that compared to that of the Egyptians.Some of the writing has been deciphered from stone markers such as this one. But our guide said that sadly, only three of their books have survived. The Spaniards burned all the rest — reportedly 1200 in just one morning.

The next day (after our harrowing flight in the thunderstorm), we had a driver transport us to the small town of Chichicastenango in the highlands. Every Thursday and Sunday, surrounding villagers stream into the center of town and set up their wares for sale. But although Chichi’s market has long been famous as one of Guatemala’s largest, we’d heard that the pandemic lockdown had cast a pall over it. Guatemala was closed to all air traffic for months, and although it’s welcoming visitors now, we’d heard that the market action was much reduced.

When we ventured out in brilliant sunshine early Thursday morning, that was hard to believe. If Chichi’s market is busier on Sundays (as we were told) and busier still in normal times, we were happy to be visiting in the midst of a plague. A large section of the center of town was crammed with mostly mask-wearing vendors in stalls, hawking everything from vegetables to hand-woven fabrics to flowers to pills for diabetics.

The place crackled with energy and color. Although Steve and I could not have been more conspicuous, we never felt hassled. Particularly mesmerizing were the skirts and tops and belts worn by almost every female. We asked ourselves: when’s the last time we’ve been in a place where virtually all the women weave cloth and turn it into outfits as striking as these?

The next day, we heard an explanation of why Mayan men no longer wear their traditional outfits (they almost universally dress in second-hand shirts and pants imported from the US.) After spending the morning at the Chichi market, we were driven to Lake Atitlan, about 90 minutes away from the market town.At the foot of the public pier in the town of Panajachel, we caught a launch to our hotel, La Casa del Mundo. Built starting in 1980 by a Guatemalan woman, Rosy Valenzuela, and her American husband (Bill Fogarty), it’s one of the most remarkable places I’ve stayed anywhere. Every cottage built on the vertiginous stone cliff commands heart-stopping views.

La Casa del Mundo, as it looks when you approach it on the water.

Stepping onto the balcony of ours, Steve exclaimed, “It’s like Lake Tahoe — with volcanoes!

Other views from in or near our room.

Friday, Steve and I visited three of the villages situated on the lakeshore not far from La Casa. Our guide was Alex, 29 (whose Mayan name I forgot to write down.) He and his three siblings first learned Tzutujil, one of the 23 Mayan languages. But all his classes in school were taught in Spanish, by government mandate, so the Mayans are also fluent in that. About 5 years ago, when Alex decided to become a tour guide, he learned to speak English (well) in an intensive program in Guatemala City to which he got a scholarship. These days he’s studying Hebrew because so many Israelis come to Guatemala on vacation (and to start businesses, like this one).

We spent six hours with Alex talking virtually non-stop. He told us how the village had built a public clothes-washing facility, but the women preferred doing their laundry in the lake.

In a village wood crafts shop, Alex pointed out the Mayan Jesuses, recognizable by their big hands and feet.

It was in the village of Santiago Atitlan that the subject of Guatemala’s civil war came up. Steve had read that even today, a quarter century after that bloody conflict ended, this topic should be broached with caution. But Alex was eager to explain it to us.

He said it ignited when Guatemala’s wealthy Spanish-descended oligarchs tried to grab yet more land from already impoverished Mayans in the highlands. Alex led us to the Catholic Church and school in Santiago where government soldiers assassinated the Oklahoma priest, Stanley Rother, in 1981 because of his work in giving refuge to Mayan political targets.

The painting of Rother in the church today.

Alex said back then the soldiers had orders to target even ordinary Guatemalan campesinos, who were easily identifiable by their striped pants and colorful shirts. That’s why the men shifted to wearing Western-style garb, a habit that continues today.

The lady is a village elder. Her hat announces her respected status. The guy in the background is wearing traditional men’s pants, not a common sight.

My favorite part of the tour was our stop in the village of San Juan, where we took a tuk-tuk from the waterfront to a women’s weaving cooperative. In the garden there, cotton plants taller than our heads bore balls of white, brown, and tan…

One of the women showed us the steps involved in turning the fuzzy balls into the gorgeous fabrics:Pulling off a chunk and removing the seeds from it…

Beating the seedless chunk to make it smooth…

Then using a hand-held spindle to twist the fiber into thread.

She showed us the natural products (bark, charcoal, avocado leaves and seeds, insects, etc.) that she and her comrades use to dye the white cotton.

After setting up the patterns on a complex wooden frame, they strap on looms to weave the threads into the beautiful fabrics.This is what is looked like, in action:

Every girl starts to learn these steps when she’s somewhere between 8 and 11, we were told. It’s not necessarily a career path (as a weaver), but just a mundane life skill in these parts, like cooking.

After leaving the Mayan heartland Saturday afternoon, we took a collective shuttle bus to the town of Antigua. It was the Spaniard’s capital in Guatemala for more than 200 years, and their administrative center for much of Central America. Then a fearsome earthquake all but destroyed the town in 1773, and the ruling elite built a new capital about 20 miles to the north. (It grew into the urban monster that’s Guatemala City today). But over the last two and a half centuries Antigua was repaired and rehabilitated. Today it exudes a hip charm and draws tourists from all over Guatemala and beyond.

Steve and I had a delightful time walking around it for several hours Sunday morning. We were struck by how many more European-looking faces we saw. I can’t exactly say that bothers me. But for the first time in my life I found myself missing all the Mayans.

Busing it

Someone might ask me: why would you take public buses to travel between cities in Guatemala? I might respond: why not?

Here are the reasons Steve and I used buses to get from Rio Dulce to Tikal. (We wanted to go to Tikal because it’s the site of fabulous Mayan ruins that rank among the most famous touristic destinations in Guatemala.)

1) Buses are one of the only ways to get between those two places. One alternative might have been to rent a car on our arrival last week and drive ourselves everywhere. But stories about the crazy Guatemalan drivers and difficult urban traffic scared us. The second alternative was to hire a private driver, as we did to get to the quetzal reserve and Rio Dulce (and will do again later in the trip). That’s the easy choice, but it’s also invariably expensive. No trains or planes or boats connect Rio Dulce and Tikal, so they’re not alternatives.

2) Buses are how ordinary Guatemalans get around.

3) Buses are not expensive. That’s why regular folks use them.

Here are the reasons we might have flatly rejected bus travel.

1) It’s invariably tricky to figure out. It’s not a big deal if you’re a native or you speak the local language like one. But I have often found bus schedules to be daunting.

2) On buses, things often go wrong, sometimes in smaller ways (they break down), sometimes spectacularly. (Their brakes fail and they go off a cliff and everyone on them dies.)

When I knew we wanted to get from Rio Dulce to Tikal, I emailed Wilmer, the manager at the Tortugal. He said our choices were buses or a private driver, and he promised to help us arrange something after we arrived.

Wilmer was great. When we checked in, he said he could help us secure a private driver or he could guide us to a public bus that would take us to Santa Elena. From Santa Elena we would have to catch a chicken bus that would take us the additional 90 minutes to Tikal. (That’s a chicken bus pictured at the top of this post.) But he also had a friend who operated a chicken bus directly to Tikal. He said he would find out if that would be running.

As things turned out, the friend only took groups of 6 or larger, and Steve and I were the only people interested in going on Monday. With the promise of Wilmer’s help, we chose the other option: travel like most Guatemalans do.

Monday morning he took us in the launch to the town of Rio Dulce, then walked with us to the station where we bought tickets on a direct bus to Santa Elena. They cost $300 quetzals (about $39) for the two of us. I was happy to hear the guy behind the counter say the ride would take four hours (I had thought it might be closer to 6).

The ticket seller in the Rio Dulce bus station.

Less encouraging was that the next bus was expected between 9:30 and 10:30 (we had arrived at 8:30, hoping to catch what we thought would be a 9 am bus.) But we had plenty of electronic toys to entertain us and the tiny bus station was air conditioned, so we settled in for as long as it would take.

Give me a seat and some AC, and I’m a pretty happy camper.
A phone charging station in the Rio Dulce bus station.

Siting there, I could summon few memories of uneventful bus rides in my life. I’ve had some, but I don’t remember anything about them. I usually don’t remember the traumatic rides either, but while waiting for the bus to Tikal, images flooded out of the part of my brain where I had repressed them. How could I have forgotten the Peruvian bus that broke down near the border of Bolivia, and the hours-long drama that followed, in which dozens of locals struggled to fix it? Or getting stuck on our “deluxe” bus in Colombia’s steam-bath heat, and having to ultimately transfer to a very much non-deluxe replacement? Or the homicidal Vietnamese bus driver who seemed intent on taking us to meet our maker? Along with thoughts of all those breakdowns and missed stops and awful delays, the thought also came back (duh!): when you’re on a Latin American bus, you are stripped of any illusion of control over your destiny (unless you believe in prayer.)

Miraculously, the bus did arrive at 9:30, and my refresher course in Bus Facts of Life continued.

Lesson One: The locals will always know what’s happening earlier than you do, and they will mobilize faster. That’s why you will get the last seats on the bus. Forget about sitting together.

The view from my seat. (It wasn’t a bad bus.)

Lesson Two: The concept of personal aural space does not exist. That’s why the 16-year-old guy next to you is uninhibited about broadcasting his favorite tunes from his phone. It’s why the six-year-old across the aisle blasts video games on his tablet and neither of the women flanking him tells him to tone it down.

Lesson Three: The bus will stop at random intervals and often it will be impossible to figure out why. On our trip, a guy in uniform boarded at one point and asked for IDs. I showed him an expired California driver’s license and he barely glanced at it. He didn’t demand anything of Steve (but Steve was wedged against the window in the row behind me, next to four Guatemalan guys.)

If it sounds like I’m complaining, I’m not. Nothing went wrong. We arrived at the Santa Elena bus terminal around 1:15 — 15 minutes before the ticket seller in Rio Dulce had said we would. A gaggle of men surrounded the bus when we disembarked, and I was braced to be hassled. Instead, when I said we wanted to get to Tikal, a brisk energetic guy led us to an office inside the large, clean terminal.

NOT air-conditioned. But still pretty nice.
The office where we bought our tickets to Tikal.

The man at the desk inside said he could sell us tickets ($19.50 for the two of us) on the only ride going directly to Tikal. It would be leaving in about an hour, he declared, which gave us time to eat the sandwiches Wilmer had packed for us.

Our ride arrived a few minutes late, and it turned out to be a van. Wilmer had said it would be a “chicken bus,” a Guatemalan institution. I had read that they are colorfully decorated former school buses that acquired new life here. They pick up and drop off passengers along certain routes. But a couple of guys on the van told me that at least in this part of Guatemala, a van could also earn the name just from the fact that stops on demand for passengers.

Whatever you called it, that thing was an oven. By the time we stopped picking up riders, every seat was filled.

Not a great picture of the van interior. But it does capture that heavy sheen of sweat on our faces.

No one had to stand, and no one brought their chickens or any other animals on board. We reached Tikal a little after 4, very close to the time it was supposed to get there. We had reconnected with the everyday experience of locals, something both Steve and I cherish. We felt happy.

The next afternoon, after a mind-blowing experience in Tikal, we got a ride in a private car back to the airport In Santa Elena (aka Flores). In advance we had bought tickets on an airline called Transportes Aereos Guatemaltecas — everyone calls it TAG. If the weather had been good, I would have forgotten that leg of our journey instantly. Instead, when the driver dropped us off, storm clouds were gathering. The TAG employee at the check-in desk told us the flight was unfortunately delayed. It might be an hour late. Or maybe later. To pass the time, Steve and I made our way to a nearby snack shop. We each ordered beers and tamales (highly recommended by our driver/guide).. Not long after consuming them, peals of thunder and lightning ushered in a downpour so intense it seemed capable of breaching the roof and flooding all the indoor spaces.

We waited, but no announcements came. Instead the lights went out. Phones and computer screens and blasts of lightning illuminated the faces of the few other sad travelers around us. Thunder made our ears ring. The lights came on eventually, but only for a while. Again we plunged abruptly into darkness.

But they came on again, and about 7:45, a propeller plane landed. Lightning was still splintering the sky when about 20 of us climbed aboard.Ironically, the 45-minute flight to Guatemala City was not terribly bumpy. Some rides are worst in anticipation.

On the cocaine highway

After our quetzal victory Saturday morning, Alfredo drove us for five hours south and then east to Rio Dulce. Rio Dulce doesn’t rank among Guatemala’s A List of touristic attractions, but given the extra time we gained from skipping Belize, it seemed worth a visit. It’s the starting point for a river trip that guidebooks gush over. As things turned out, we also loved our two-night Rio Dulce stop-over.

We didn’t stay in the sweltering town but rather in a lodge-cum-marina on the river. This whole area is reportedly a magnet for nomadic gringo boaters. People say during hurricane season it offers the safest berths on the western Caribbean. At the Tortugal Boutique River Lodge, the sterns of the sailboats and cruisers lined up along the docks bore place names like Oakland and Alameda, California and Houston, Texas.They looked like nice yachts, but I was happier ensconced in La Casita Elegante.Located at the farthest reach of the property, it was more rustico than elegante, but I loved the wild jungle surrounding the back of it. In the other direction, we enjoyed views of the river. And the dining room came equipped with two friendly young Guatemalan dogs.

For the river trip, my guidebook had reassured me that tour agencies as well as local sailors offered routine passage both downstream and up. Unfortunately, the pandemic has all but decimated tourism, and it wasn’t clear even the single public ferry of the day would be running from Rio Dulce that Sunday. So we opted for the alternative: hiring a private launch and pilot to take us down the river to the town of Livingston.

If pricy ($170), this was a luxury that felt like it was worth every penny. Baltazar, our pilot, was competent and informative, and we had his services for the whole day. He pointed out the egrets and cormorants perched in the dense trees on Bird Island. We cruised through an area filled with water lilies that he said bloomed year-round.A bit further downstream, we stopped at a bankside establishment that was part restaurant, part tourist attraction. Steve and I each paid 15 quetzals (about $2) to the 67-year-old proprietor, Felix,and he guided us up and down a plunging path to a creepy cave and natural sauna warmed by hot springs.

We saw this plump fellow in the cave, along with a ton of bats. I tried to photograph them, but failed.

I tested the water temperature in this bathing area (quite warm but not scalding). But I passed on a full-on soaking.

Downstream from Felix’s place, the river runs through towering limestone cliffs covered with some of the densest, greenest vegetation imaginable. The guidebook says a Tarzan movie was filmed here, and it’s easy to see why. A little later, about two hours after leaving Rio Dulce, we motored into the harbor at Livingston.

Everyone and everything that arrives in Livingston comes in by boat. No roads connect it to the rest of Guatemala. Adding to that exoticism is the fact it’s the home of the Garifuna, descendants of Afro-Caribbean people who moved to this coastline centuries ago. Because of their presence, Lonely Planet proclaims, “nowhere else in Guatemala will you find such a friendly, fun, and relaxed vibe.” People had also told us we couldn’t miss eating the Garifuna dish known as tapado, a mix of seafood stewed in spicy coconut milk that’s an emblem of Caribbean cooking.

We did see a dozen or so black folks hanging out around the pier. But walking up the seedy central thoroughfare, we detected few signs of the ethnic minority. The street ended at the beach, all but deserted shortly before noon on this particular Sunday morning. Because the breeze off the water tempered the sweltering heat, we decided to stroll along a scruffy waterfront pathway for a bit before searching for the restaurant recommended by our Rio Dulce hotel manager.

That’s how we met Philip Flores. He and another black guy were lounging on the concrete stoop of a derelict bungalow, and as we approached, Philip called out the universal street-hustler’s greeting: “Where’re you from?”

“California,” Steve answered amiably. “Where in California?” Philip pressed.

His next question was less orthodox. “What’s that mountain there [in San Diego] where you can see in all directions? I went up to the top when I played there as a musician.” We determined it was probably Mt Soledad, which somehow led to him reminiscing about fishing for tilapia at the Salton Sea. In another moment, he was telling us how rock legend Jerry Garcia had spent time in Garifuna and wound up inviting Philip, an accomplished guitarist, to return to the US with him and tour.

Philip claims that Jerry Garcia painted the colorful image on the wall.

Despite studying (at some point) at the University of Illinois’s campus in Chicago, Philip had returned to Livingston. Today he says he’s a well-recognized community leader. If this all sounds far-fetched, something made Steve and me trust him. His explanation of the sad plight of the Garifuna today had the ring of both truth and passionate indignation. He explained that during the 1980s, Mayans (as he called them) fleeing Guatemala’s civil war had moved into the town where the Garifuna had lived peacefully, in isolation, for so long. The Mayans had commandeered all the prime commercial real estate and forced the Garifuna into a ghetto on the shore. It was all but apartheid, according to Philip. And with local fish stocks decimated and little land for subsistence farming, the Garifuna were barely surviving, supported in large part by money sent back from relatives in the US.

When Philip offered to lead us on a little walk through the Garifuna enclave, we jumped at the opportunity. Steve and I have spent so much time in poor African villages in the last ten years, the Garifuna district almost felt like home. It was wretchedly poor. Most of the folks we passed looked tired.

We eventually wound up at a restaurant recommended by Philip, where we did gobble down delicious bowls of tapado.

Here’s Maria, owner of Restaurante Gamboa Place, and its chief cook.

Philip didn’t join us. He said he had to get to a gathering where he would be working with some of the local children. But before he left for that he sat with us and we talked a bit more. He mentioned offhand that the Rio Dulce is a huge highway for drugs. He implied that virtually all the cocaine grown in South America for eventual sale in America floats up it. The presence of the drug cartel lords and their enforcers adds to the edginess of his home town.

Steve and I left Livingstone shortly after lunch. On the ride back, we looked for signs of the drug runners, but all we saw were some waterside homes and marinas that looked suspiciously prosperous. They were like the fancy mansions we passed on our drive with Alfredo, conspicuous, almost arrogant, in their wealth.

We made one final stop. Just a few miles west of our lodge. In the opposite direction from Livingston, the Castillo de San Felipe commands a narrow point where the river meets the Lago de Izabel (Guatemala’s biggest lake). Baltazar told us the Spanish built this fort in the mid-1600s to fight the English pirates who roamed the Caribbean, plundering and marauding. It bristles with cannons that the locals employed to deter the bad guys of the day.

It made me reflect that the Garifuna people are probably worse off today than they were when the fort was new. On the other hand, life’s a lot better for the residents of Rio Dulce. Travel does provide constant reminders of the ups and downs of human fortunes.

In the cloud forest of the resplendent quetzal

I like beautiful birds as much as the next person, but I’m no serious birdwatcher. I would have said spotting any particular bird would never shape the itinerary of any of my trips. Still, I knew that resplendent quetzals, gorgeous and elusive birds laden with powerful symbolism, are an icon in this part of the world. When border politics forced us to cut Belize from our journey and gave us three extra days in Guatemala, we decided to try to (metaphorically) bag this mystical avian.

I’d read that there’s a quetzal bio-preserve a few of hours north of Guatemala City. Moreover, this time of year is when the birds are mating and having their babies, hence it’s an optimal time for spotting them.

On the other hand, the Biotopo del Quetzal is not the easiest place to reach. Our Lonely Planet guide to Central America suggested we might be able to get there on a public Monja Blanca bus from Guatemala City. But… were these buses running, post-Covid? And how exactly would we get to one from our hotel? I couldn’t find ready answers. When a travel blog and Facebook led me to a driver named Alfredo Garcia, I emailed him and he responded promptly. We hired him to pick us up at our Guatemala City hotel the morning after our arrival and take us directly to quetzal country.

Quetzals live in the cloud forests of Central America. Historians tell us that the ancient Mayans thought they were gods and executed anyone caught killing the birds. What particularly tempts humans to kill quetzals are the male birds’ gloriously long tails; their feathers can grow to be 30 inches long. Although quetzals reportedly can be found in high chilly regions ranging from the Yucatán to Panama, Guatemalans particularly revere them. They made quetzals their national bird; put them on their flag and named their money after them. Alfredo pointed out to us that quetzals die in captivity. “So to us they are the symbol of freedom,” he said.

Alfredo turned out to be my ideal driver: skillful, smart, savvy, sensitive, and an agile conversational partner. He had told me about Ranchitos del Quetzal, located immediately next to the quetzal reserve, which itself is located down a heavily forested country road. At these basic lodgings, Alfredo personally had had excellent luck spotting quetzals over the years. He picked us up at our hotel in the capital at 9, and we arrived at the Ranchitos a little over three hours later. It had started drizzling when we set out, and the strength of the rain had built throughout our ride. But on the bright side, one of the young managers showed us a photo of a gorgeous male quetzal he had taken with his phone just a few hours earlier.

Alfredo on the steps of Ranchitos del Quetzal

We ate a simple lunch — black beans, potato salad, a bit of salad. Then Steve and I donned pretty much all the outerwear we’d brought with us (not much), grabbed our umbrellas and hiking poles, and trudged the 100 meters down the road to the reserve.

As cloud forests go, this was a lovely one. Our altimeter app said we were at 5500 feet when we set out, and from there, the path was all uphill, over rocky but well-tended trails. Towering trees, ferns of all sizes, orchids, bromeliads, wild ginger and other plants crowded in at every twist of the path, while a cold fog swirled overhead. The trees protected us from the brunt of the rain, though droplets hitting leaves sounded like birds; they made me jump and crane my neck almost constantly, hoping to glimpse our quarry.

But we saw no quetzals and almost no other humans, except for one pack of young Guatemalan parents shepherding toddlers and toting a couple of babies, moving through the drenched, vertiginous wilderness as blithely as San Diego parents stroll through Balboa Park.

I began to brace myself for leaving the area bearing only a photo of the stuffed quetzal in the reserve’s tiny, unmanned visitor center. But back at the Ranchitos, the manager told us to be on the porch at 5:30 the next morning, “and you will see a quetzal.”

It sounded enough like a promise that we did what he said. Once again, it was drizzly under cold gray skies. Steve and Alfredo and the manager and I stood and watched. We noted squirrels gamboling high in some trees. We heard birds singing and eventually saw a beautiful quetzal relative called a drogon perched on a wire. We admired the big violet saber-winged hummingbirds whom we’d been seeing throughout our stay. We milled about and didn’t chat much.

After an hour or so I had sat down on a stool and was meditating when some movement caught my half-lidded gaze. My first thought was that it must be some other small mammal, like the squirrel, with the capacity to be airboreal. Its very long tail to me looked rat-like. But then the creature flew to another perch. I stared at that tail and the manager yelled. The steely early morning light made it hard to make out the bird’s brilliant red chest, but the tail looked like nothing I’d ever seen on a bird before: unmistakably a quetzal, Alfredo and the manager concurred.

The four of us were ebullient, the way people get when they go to a lot of trouble to view exotic animals in the wild, and they get lucky. I felt proud of my quetzal pictures. They’ll help me remember what this very rare bird actually looked like. The cloud forest photos are less useful. They don’t come close to communicating what it’s like to move through that dense, drenched chilly realm. But I have added to my mental list of Amazing Quetzal Facts its power to get folks out of their comfort zone and into remote, resplendent forests that, if unphotographable, are hard to forget.