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Chapter 15 - Central America - Guatemala

By Neil and Nikki

sunny 25 °C
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Onto Guatemala....

Having started in Panama and travelled on to Nicaragua via Costa Rica, it was time to head to Guatemala, via El Salvador and Honduras. We had heard that the Easter week celebrations in Antigua were the best in Central and Latin America. We had to go take a look….

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We arrived in Antigua, Guatemala at 7 pm on Easter Saturday. Wow! Antigua is amazing.

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Antigua, Guatemala with one of three surrounding volcano’s towering over it.

Antigua was the capital city of Guatemala for 233 years, until 1776 when Guatemala City was given this honor. This change occurred when Antigua was all but wiped off the map due to a natural disaster.

Somewhat surprisingly was not one of the many volcanoes that destroyed the city, but rather an earthquake. The earthquake struck in 1773, leveling the city to such an extent that it took centuries for it to recover. There are still many ruins in the city which have not been repaired or removed from this event! The only original part of the renovated convent we stayed in that remained after the earthquake was this wall:

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Looking at the wall of the convent where we were staying. This wall was all that survived of the 1773 earthquake

Antigua – Easter Week – Semana Santa.

Although we arrived right at the tail end of the week, Antigua for Semana Santa is something quite special.

The religious fervour of the groups carrying Easter floats through the streets, and the floats themselves, was moving.

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Float of Christ being taken down from the Cross.

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The Devotees swinging baskets of scented smoke through the streets.

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Resurrected Christ.

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The Devotees ahead of the Float.

Following each of the floats was a band that consisted of french horns, trumpets, tubas, trombones, clarinets and drums (snare and bass). The music depended on which part of Easter the float depicted. A sad dirge for the crucifixion, a jolly ditty for the resurrection....

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The band that followed each float.

However, the unique part of the Antiguan Semana Santa celebration, is the street “carpets”.

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They are made from different coloured sand and sawdust and placed on the streets as an offering in order for the numerous processions to walk over. There are literally hundreds of these that are laid down for the Semana Santa. And they were artistically stunning:

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And then, within minutes they are destroyed and swept up into trucks following the processions!

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The parade walking over the “carpet”.

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The workmen cleaning up the “carpet”

It has to be said that, whilst the religious fervour of the crowd for the resurrection was moving, the actual image of Jesus on the float was a little, er, like Jesus had just popped out of a birthday cake and said “surprise!”, which, I suppose, in a way, he did……

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Antigua Town

Antigua is a beautiful colonial town, in a stunning setting at an elevation of 1,500 metres meaning the days are about 25C and the nights are 13 C. Great when you’ve just come from sea level where it had been bloody hot and humid. And Antigua has great food. Our favourite was probably “La Luna de Miel” (The moon of honey), where, rather appropriately for Nikki and I they had a signpost with our starting point of Ushuaia on it, and our finishing point of Cape Horn…..

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8,006 km’s from Ushuaia, at the bottom of South America, and 12,670 km’s to Cape Horn.

In the background is the biggest avocado tree we’ve ever seen.

Then again, me being a meat head, the steak at Frida’s Mexican Restaurant was stunning….Nikki had the best guacamole and nachos of the trip there as well!

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The placemat at Fridas restaurant, Antigua.

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Photo showing some of the food from Antigua.

Antigua is visually stunning…

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No fast food, no dogs, and no hand guns !

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My Sons, Alex and Michael

As some of you know, Guatemala is particularly interesting for me because Alex and Michael are one quarter Guatemalan. Their maternal grandmother was from Guatemala. Just like the book “A Hundred Years of Solitude” by Columbian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was a history of a town in northern Columbia, the story of my sons’ Guatemalan heritage is a reflection of the history of Central America, with all of its divergent parts, including guerrilla’s, the CIA, an El Salvadorean president, and coffee.

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Alex, Michael and me in Buenos Aires in January 2017

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Lake Atitlan:

84,000 years ago a bloody great volcano went bang. The caldera is 12 km’s by 5 km’s and is about 4 hours from Antigua (Actually only a 100 km’s. Yes the roads are a bit basic). The 340 metre deep caldera filled with water and formed Lake Atitlan. Other volcano’s formed until you end of with one of the most stunning visual settings in the world.

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Looking out over Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

After our fill of Easter in Antigua, we decided to spend a few days relaxing on the lake. We spent our first night in San Pedro la Laguna.

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View of Lake Atitlan from our hotel in San Pedro la Laguna.

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Sunset Photo from San Pedro la Laguna

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Lake Atitlan from our hotel in San Pedro la Laguna.

Our plan was then to travel to the other towns around the lake by water taxi, and spend 2 nights in Tzununa. However, our first stop was San Juan, a centre for many Mayan artisans, including painters and weavers. On arriving into town, the tuk tuk by chance dropped us off outside the studio of Diego Isaias Hernandez Mendez’s and, well, there was a painting. Nik and I have said a couple of years ago that, whilst we weren’t going to carry around things for a year, if we saw stuff that we just went “Yes, I want that”, then we’d buy it and ship it back. Also, I’ve seen art in the past and loved it, and not bought it, and regretted it. As soon as I saw this, I loved it. It's not to everyone's taste (Nikki said it's going straight to the pool room), but there you go. And it’s my birthday present from Nikki. Thanks!

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My painting with the artist, Diego Isaias.

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It’s been posted from Mexico. I hope I get to see it again..

Guatemalan textiles

For you “Textile-Holics” out there, it’s over to Nikki:

Lake Atitlan is particularly renowned for weaving and textiles. Each of the villages around the lake have their own techniques, patterns and production. San Juan is particularly noted for its weaving cooperatives where local women come to dye, spin, weave and sell their produce. After rummaging in the Antiguan markets to familiarise myself with the different regions and techniques, I spent a happy couple of hours under a pile of fabric and weaving at Casa Flor Ixcaco, a weaving cooperative for the women in San Juan. The amount of weaving produced in the town is quite astounding, and the great thing about CFI is that each piece identifies the artist who made it and details around the processes and materials used. The fabric is 100% cotton, all locally grown. The cotton is hand dyed using local plants and natural materials, such as eucalyptus, mint, beetroot and various flowers. Many Guatemalan woman wear traditional clothing, which means that it is not produced solely for tourists, although there are beautiful modern designs as well as traditional to chose from.”

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Swatches of cloth on the wall of our hotel in Antigua.

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We then got on a boat around the lake to La Lguma de Tzununa, a hotel perched up on the hill with this view.

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It was a magical view. A magical smokey view. The level of deforestation around the lake was significant, which was not surprising when most of the cooking was done over a wood stove….

However, in all our time on Lake Atitlan was just the relaxing break we needed before our push north....

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This Bloke is on a bit of a walk.

So there’s this bloke called Paul Salopek. He thought it would be good to follow the path of humans movement from its’ cradle, thought to be Ethiopia, through to Tierra del Fuego. He called his trek “Out of Eden” and he started in January 2013 and is expecting to finsh in 2020. At present he is walking through Kyrgyzstan.

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In Australia, there is, in south western New South Wales, Lake Mungo. In 1969, Jim Bowler found the remains of what became known as Mungo Woman. Mungo Woman’s age was tested to be about 20,000 years old. In 1974, Mungo Man was found and his age was estimated to be 50,0000 years old.

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Lake Mungo, New South Wales, Australia, and Mungo Man

It’s believed that human kind did not manage to start “colonising” the Americas until they go across the Bering Strait from Russia during the Last Glacial Event, about 21,000 years ago. They then spread down through to Tierra del Fuego. This could explain why the Mayan ruins are comparatively young when compared with Egypt and India. Talking of Mayan ruins, we went to see one of the best, Tikal in Guatemala.

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Tikal

Tikal, in northern Guatemala, is one of the most significant Mayan sites yet discovered and is listed as a UNESCO Heritage Site. Construction by the Mayan people started around 800 BC and continued up until about 900 AD. The ruins, the size of them, their antiquity is amazing.

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Looking out on the central square in Tikal.

We went for the sunrise tour leaving at 3 am. It was worth it for the light, the lack of crowds, and the serenity.

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Dawn over Tikal.

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Tikal is the only Mayan ruins that are in a rainforest.

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Showing the sacrifice stones…. Human Sacrifice that is…

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The complex was abandoned in about 900 AD. Why? Well, the theory is that the beautiful Mayans ran out raw materials. Tikal is one of the only major Mayan ruins still located the middle of a rainforest setting. Most have been substantially cleared. The area was also rainforest before the Mayans started building Tikal. To get to the limestone for building material, the Mayans needed to clear the rainforest. To make the limestone mortar, the mayans needed fire. To cook, they needed wood. A bit of a theme? Yes. By the time the complex was home to 100,000 people, it ran out of wood and was abandoned. It wasn’t until 1848 that the Guatemalan government sent out an expedition led by Modesto Mendez and Ambrosio Tut to take another look.

By the way, the temples were for astrological observations, not sacrifice. That was done on the rocks down on the ground…..

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To Belize and Mexico:

The trip from Flores, the very nice town that is the jumping off point to Tikal, to Chetumal, Mexico, is via another British colonial vestige, Belize. They are part of the Commonwealth and didn’t gain independence from Britain until 1981. It was very weird to get to the border and, for the first time in 16 weeks be asked to speak English again. But only for 5 hours and then it was onto Mexico. The Lonely Planet guide to Central America includes the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, so I will too. But the next blog is going to be from our one week trip to Cuba…..

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Posted by capetocape2017 08:21 Archived in Guatemala Tagged lake santa semana atitlan tikal antigua Comments (0)

Chapter 14 – Central America - Nicaragua

By Neil

sunny 32 °C
View Cape to Cape on capetocape2017's travel map.

The Revolution and Ronnie.

“La revolución comenzó en 1978 aquí en León”, said Benito, a fighter in the Nicaraguan civil war and our guide at the Museo de la Revolucion in Leon.

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Nikki and Benito on the roof of the Museum of the Revolution, used as the headquarters for communications during the revolution and a surprising addition to our tour. As you can see, it is in perfect condition!

Nikki and I had travelled up from Panama City to Managua, Nicaragua, via San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, the previous morning.

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And then jumped on a ‘Chicken Bus’ for the last 100km’s to Leon. It was our first ride on a truly local bus and it was hot, crowded (standing room only for many) and cost less than $2.

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The old American School Bus used ubiquitously throughout Central America and dubbed ‘Chicken Buses’ because you were just as likely to meet a chicken as a person in your travels...

“Why did the revolution start?” I asked Benito.

“The Somoza Regime, backed by the Americans, was murdering the people. We had to rise up”.

The Somoza’s had ruled the country since 1937, having been placed there by the Americans following the US occupation of Nicaragua in 1912; part of the series of US occupations, invasions and control that are now referred to as the “Banana Wars”.

The FSLN, the Sandinista National Liberation Front was formed in 1961 inspired by Che Guevara and Fidel Castro and, as its activities increased in the 1970’s, the violent suppression of the people by the Somoza regime increased, supported by the USA.

Benito took us through (in Spanish) the murals, photos and propaganda material in the museum, which detailed the struggles they faced during the revolution, including a photo of a 22 year old Benito celebrating the liberation of Leon.

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A mural honouring the Nicaraguan heroes of the revolution.

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The kind of art work that pervades countries touched by conflict and revolution.

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Us on the roof of the Communications Centre with the Leon Cathedral in the background.

Uncle Ronnie

I am referring to the highly respected “B” rate movie actor and former President of the United States, Ronald Reagan.

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One of the most critically acclaimed films of the former President of the United States, “Bedtime for Bonzo”

When Ronald Reagan took office in 1980, his administration supported the “Contras”, a mix of right wing groups organised to fight the Sandanistas (the abovementioned FLSN who were pushing for revolution in Nicaragua). The Russian’s were supporting the Sandanistas. A proxy war was being fought by the superpowers. Sound familiar?

As the war dragged on the US congress wanted to limit, and later stop, US support for the Contras.

Reagan believed that support for the Contras should continue and so began the Iran Contra Affair where the Reagan administration illegally took money from arms sales to Iran and funnelled it to the Contras. Below are a couple of cartoons about the Affair.

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As you can see it ended in a great scandal for Reagan and did not stop the revolution. Daniel Ortega became the president and has been in power, in one form or another, almost continuously since 1979.

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Mark Twain said “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”

Nik and I have met lots of fantastic people on the trip. Smart people. Funny people. Interesting people. People with great insights on the world.

One of these people was an American bloke whom we met in the Posada Fuente Castalia, our hostel in Leon. First of all, you’ve got to love a bloke who has a PhD in writing. That’s cool. If one wants to have one’s thinking challenged it’s good to meet people with different experience and backgrounds. Our new American friend threw in a great thought.

I’ve been thinking, and going on about America’s involvement in South American and Central American politics, society, and government. Our American friend pointed out that his parents worked for a period in Venezuela, prior to Hugo Chavez getting into power. He pointed out that when a countries currency becomes so worthless that citizens start weighing their money when they want to but something, something has seriously turned to custard. America didn’t get involved in Venezuelan politics and Chavez managed to turn the country into a “failed” state.

The older I’ve got, the more I realise that, whilst in most situations it is easy to do what is right, there are some where the best solution is not good, it is actually the least worst solution. Maybe sitting back and handing influence and power to people backed by Russia (30 million murdered in the Gulags), or Castro (great if you want to live in the 1950’s), might not the best solution.

Something to think about……

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So, Nicaragua. First of all the highlight. Hiking up to the smouldering caldera of the Telica Volcano.

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Note the sulphur clouds drifting from the volcano…

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Joe, our guide told us that the last eruption was in May 2016, but it’s ok because it was only a small one.

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Looking at the top of the Caldera.

It was a steep hike in the sun (38 degrees) but the view of the caldera at the top made it all worthwhile! The scenery was very picturesque and the sunset was awesome!

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After watching the sunset and visiting a cave full of bats, we hiked back up to the caldera to see if we could spot any lava in the bottom of the caldera. I know it doesn’t look like much, but the circle of lava you can see was quite bright and it sounded like an airplane taking off!

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Photo looking down 124 metres at the lava at the bottom of the caldera

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Leon itself is a pretty colonial city. It is home to the largest Cathedral in Central America, built in 1747, 30 years before Captain Cook arrived in Australia. It is cool. And big.

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Our Lady of Grace Cathedral in Leon, Nicaragua.

Easter week in South and Central America is called the Semana Santa. Numerous floats are made up and carried through the streets, depicting various scenes from Easter, including Jesus carrying the cross:

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Float of Jesus carrying the Cross in Leon, Nicaragua. The float is about 2.5 metres wide and about 5 metres long. It is hand carried by about 20 devotees.

The local community set up shrines outside their houses:

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A shrine to the Virgin Mary outside of a house in Leon, Nicaragua.

The emotion in the crowd was palpable. For the crucifixion, there were tears, for the resurrection, applause. Below are some scenes from Semana Santa in Leon.

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The form of Jesus after being taken down off the cross being carried through the streets.

Leon was a fascinating introduction to Semana Santa, but we had heard that the Easter celebrations in Antigua, Guatemala were not to be missed. So, whilst it meant that we had to travel straight through Honduras and El Salvador, we left Leon at 2am on Easter Sunday morning to ensure that we arrived in Antigua in time for Easter Sunday evening.

Honduras, I’m sure, is a really nice place but with a murder rate of 1 in 1,000 per year, the bus driver basically kept his foot to the floor for the 3 hour crossing of the country. We also waved our way through El Salvador, creating a new record of three countries in one day!

And then there was Guatemala….

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Posted by capetocape2017 20:10 Archived in Nicaragua Tagged volcano santa semana roses n revolution guns Comments (1)

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