Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Paris of the Mayan World

The national bird of Honduras
A couple of things stand out about our two day trip to Copan, Honduras

1- When it comes to driving in Guatemala, Google maps suck.
2- All immigration officers should be as nice as the Honduran officer allowing us into his country
3- Cowboy hats are THE number 1 fashion piece in Copan

Of course all of this is secondary to the Mayan ruins, which were the actual reason that we went to Copan. To quote our enthusiastic and elaborative tour guide: Tikal’s vastness might make it the New York of ruins, but Copan’s elaborate designs make it the Paris of them.

The northern part of Central America has your pick of Mayan Ruins. Being in Guatemala the obvious choice would have been Tikal. But it is a 12 hour bus or 1 hour flight away from Antigua, about twice the distance of Copan. Also, as the preeminent tourist destination in Guatemala, Tikal’s cost for a weekend was $300+ per person which was more than we wanted to pay. Copan by contrast was not as touristy and within driving distance: 6 hours by Google's estimate. Of course, if you refer to my points above, Google should never be trusted, particularly not in Guatemala or Latin America in general.

Even if you forget about Google’s deficiencies of not recognizing the major highway and not computing the standstill traffic that we were in, we also had the misfortune of leaving on the Saturday of the Caravan del Zorro, the weekend when 40,000 motorcycles make a pilgrimage to the Black Christ in Esquipulas. It was the exact same route just one hour closer than Copan. Of course, we only found this out after the fact.

Long story short, we arrived in Copan 10 hours later, not 6. Ten hours in the car makes Karen a grumpy camper. Arriving at dark, made it worse and we started fearing that the El Florida border crossing might close. (It doesn’t by the way. It is open 24 hours a day). However, because it is generally not considered safe to be on the roads after sunset, we were the only ones arriving at 6pm. So the border crossing was all ours. The Honduran Officer was more than happy to see us. He thanked us profusely for giving him our passports, for each finger that we put on the scanner, for letting him take our pictures, for the entrance fee to the country. He was smiley, polite, respectful and kind. A great welcome to a new country. We liked Honduras already.

The next day, at its 8am opening time, we tackled the ruins. When visiting any ruins you need to bring your imagination. Even though the ruins at Copan are in very good shape, half of it is still buried under years of soil or overruled by trees extending their roots. Another good portion was gone altogether with the passing time.

We rightly determined that we should get a guide because, like the Roman forum, walking around an archaeological site on your own with the 3-4 signs is essentially like wandering around a grave site. It is a very important site for many people, but unless you have family there, the gravestones' names and dates mean nothing to you. The same with ruins. If you don’t know the story, it is hard to feel moved by the significance of a place. Our guide was a very knowledgeable, go-lucky, playful man who, you could tell, liked his job and had pride in Copan. He was the one who compared Paris to Copan and I get the sense that were he ever to visit Paris (or perhaps he has), he would still rank Copan above it.

Monkey-looking thing
The hieroglyphs which are more numerous here than in any other Mayan site are still indecipherable to the average human. I would have loved to be that symbologist that shows up on a site and can read a statue, an altar or the façade of a temple just by understanding symbols, but sadly, I am not and even learning about them on our tour while I photographed them my only take-aways are the bug-eyed guy, the monkey-looking thing, the teeth of something or other and the generic Mayan king/god. I do remember the dancing jaguar though because that was particularly funny and stood out.

Bug-eyed guy
Dancing Jaguar, its real name, not like my invented ones above
With or without a guide though, Copan does have a magical sense to it. It engages all of your sense. At eight in the morning, you can smell the dampness of the surrounding forests in the air. You can hear all the birds chirping away, happy that the dawn dispelled another night. You can almost taste the papayas and coconuts ripening on the nearby trees. Your eyes can easily feast on the hieroglyphs and intricate statues. And as an outdoor museum, you can touch the steps and stones that made up this medieval, civilization.

The town has adopted the name of the ruins, Copan Ruinas town. However, it just barely qualifies as a town. Perhaps more a village than anything else, it has three main stretches of activity all with businesses generally feeding on tourism: 2-3 hotels, some restaurants, a couple bars – juice and regular ones - and strangely enough, pharmacies. Perhaps these also fed on tourists.

One other thing was clear from the town of Copan Ruinas: the cowboy hat ruled. It was ubiquitous. Even more than the cities I have been to in Texas, or the west of the US, the cowboy hat here was the rule not the exception for the men of the town. It was probably the one and only real fashion statement. Coupled with all the trucks, many of which had seemingly taken mud baths, this town was not afraid of hard work or getting dirty.

Like Guatemala, you do have to take safety into account when visiting Honduras and take some precautions. Copan, like Antigua though, is a bit of a haven. I am very happy though that its reputation for being unsafe is not the only thing I know about Honduras.

Aside from being safe, Copan was interesting, intriguing, and a historian’s mecca. I am glad we visited the Paris of the Mayan World. One day I will also make it to its New York.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The way to see San Jose

Our introduction to Pura Vida didn’t get off to a great start: rental car mix-up/scam, 2 hours lost trying to sort it out, 3.5 hour drive from Liberia to San Jose turning into 6 hours because of standstill traffic, a hotel that didn’t live up to its expectations (and that is being diplomatic; I could just say it was a crap hole) and a Valentine’s day dinner at the Holiday Inn Sports pub with mediocre microwavable food. By the end of the night, I was happy our first day was over.

The advice I had heard about San Jose was to keep my expectations low, so I didn’t have high hopes for day two either. Upon stepping out of our hotel, I understood why. Many streets look quite rough (though apparently they are not): empty buildings, barbed wire, decrepit sidewalks or dilapidated edifices. The central part of town does have some elegance, the Teatro Nacional as one example, but it is scattered among the non-charming bits.

To me, the city of San Jose reminded me of a former soviet-block country with buildings similar to those I have seen in Eastern Europe. Square cut, arithmetically symmetrical, uniform, gray, decaying and uninspiring. It is true that San Jose is not a city to go to for its beauty, but it doesn’t mean that the city is completely devoid of it. You just have to look a little harder.

Here are some of the beautiful things I found in San Jose:

La Merced Church 

With its dark wood ceiling, thin columns each decorated with different patterns and colors and blue and white-tiled floors, we were not prepared to stumble upon something so stunning. The unkempt façade did not even hint at the vast beauty on the inside. But admiring all the little details, La Merced quickly became one of my favorite churches, even when considering the innumerous Roman ones I have frequented. I don’t even know if this church was in our guide book, but it should be.

Historic Houses

Some of San Jose’s most beautiful buildings are seemingly abandoned. Old wood colonial-style houses with gorgeous balconies, grand entrances and large porches. We saw them randomly sprinkled throughout San Jose, most of them looking like they hadn’t been in use for a while. Any of these would make amazing theaters, galleries, restaurants or cafes. They are jewels just waiting for a purpose.

Street art 

We didn’t visit any of the museums in our one day in San Jose which is a bit of a shame, especially because San Jose seems to be one of the cities that gives some prominence to local artists instead of just flouting the world known masters. It is nice to see a city proud of its own. Even outside of the museums, we could see bits of this creativity in the street art. What looked like commissioned murals under bridges and on walls were quite unique and clever. And one of them using tiles as a type of a mosaic collage featured cats, so of course I loved it.

The art of coffee: El Tostador 

I am not a morning person and waking up early almost every day of this vacation/sabbatical has tested the boundaries of my morning inhospitablity. Thankfully some of the world’s best coffee comes from Central America. Guatemala fed my habit quite well and Costa Rica has not disappointed either. The espresso macchiato from El Tostador was gorgeously prepared, thick and foamy. It was perfection.

Charming restaurant: La Criolitta 

La Criolitta reminded me of a green house or old train station with its domed roof. This cute restaurant, marred only slightly by 4 TVs one for each wall, is a little hole in the wall place with good local food, which for me was a massive plate of buttery, spiced seabass (corvina) served by an attentive waitress. The secret is out though and everyone toting their guide books (I think it is in all of them) comes for the cheap-ish, typical “local” experience. Of the 5 tables there, only 1 was filled with locals, but at least they haven’t abandoned the place completely.

Beauty of Amusement: La Casona Tipica 

Not in guide books and seemingly a Latin American Chuck-E-Cheese, this restaurant had big masquerade costumes on the outside to lure or scare (I don’t know which) people away. The inside was all locals though (save for us and maybe one table). The menu was all casados (rice, beans and plantains mixtures) and arrozes of sorts served on banana leaves. This was the real stuff.

Don't get me wrong; I am a sucker for beauty. We all are to various degrees. So San Jose can turn you off if you aren’t careful, but it would be a mistake to judge it completely by its cover. I would love to see this city take advantage of the huge influx of tourists to make full use its potential: its empty spaces, its historic buildings, its already lovely parks, its walkable center, its skyline of mountains and volcanoes, its tendency towards promoting the arts and its gorgeous weather.

It is a chance for Costa Rica’s capital to show off its good side to the tourists who fly to San Jose only because it is the cheapest option. Tourists now either skip the city entirely or begrudgingly stay the night because of necessity. I think it could be a tourist destination in it of itself if it wanted to be.

As for the tourists who come looking for beauty, you don't always get it handed on a plate. But there is always beauty if you look hard enough.

Friday, February 5, 2016


Our intimate experience of one of Vulcan Fuego's eruptions, in addition to seeing three volcanoes on the way to pretty much any errand, has made me a little volcano crazy. A volcanophile… if I can use an invented word.

I have researched these Guatemalan volcanoes that I am living with now and, for fun, read about the Italian volcanoes that I lived with before. I have listened with awe to stories from locals and from others who have lived through the eruptions, like the Mount St. Helene's eruption.

For the Guatemalatecos it is just another fact of life, like disease-bearing mosquitoes or 5 months of rain; you give it some thought, but you move on with life. For me, active volcanoes are not just another hill on the horizon. I never get sick of seeing Antigua's three volcanoes. It was like walking by the Colosseum every day. I was still thrilled to see it. I think volcanoes fascinate me so much because you really never know what to expect.

From day to day, they look the same, but there is always something boiling underneath. In my latest research, I learned that an active volcano is one that has erupted at least once in the last 10,000 years. That is not a small amount of time. If it is actively spouting like Fuego or Pacaya its status is considered erupting; if it is quiet like Acatenango or Agua it is considered dormant, but still technically active. A volcano is only called extinct if it hasn’t erupted in 10,000 years. So most volcanoes we see or hear about are dormant, i.e. sleeping.

What a weird thought that any day some of these sleepy giants will wake up and change the world of people around them.

Fuego erupting
My husband mentioned to our Spanish teachers, in his teasing manner, that he doesn’t need to see any volcanoes because he lives with one. I thought about this particular insult/joke and in the end, I agree. I think I am like a volcano. In fact, I kind of relate to Vulcan Fuego. I am quiet for the most part of the year, unassuming, even unremarkable sometimes, but like Fuego, I can become a force to be reckoned with. When I am awakened by something that makes me upset/angry/excited, I erupt and the fireworks can be quite shocking. But just as quickly I can go quiet again.

Observing Fuego's latest largest eruption, Amazing.
My teachers always told me that of the volcanoes in their midst, the one they fear the most is Agua or Acatenango. They reasoned that when volcanoes are always erupting a little, then you know that it is not likely to have a completely devastating eruption. Whereas the ones that are completely quiet for many years, can be devastating when they awaken.

Volcano Agua, hiding
Isn’t this just like humans? The ones that let out their frustration, anger, sadness or emotion a little at a time, even if it is shocking or awe inspiring at the moment, are not as dangerous as the ones who keep quiet for long periods of time, because at some point and some time, there will be an explosion and people around may not be ready for it.

You can’t make water like fire, any more than you can make Volcan Agua like Feugo, but for those people in your life who are dormant, it might be good to give them a small nudge to see if you can awaken the beast before the unexpected eruption changes the landscape for good.


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