Tikal Guatemala - Mayan ruins -
Well here I sit in the lodge of the Tikal Inn drinking a Gallo cerveza and listening to a marimba band play. We have done more in the past week than I had thought previously possible and let me just tell ya, I have seen some crazy fucked up shit in my time but nothing has even come close to what I have seen this passed week.
Let me back up. Hmmmmmmm. Let's see the last journal entry had me at the pool at the famous Santa Domingo Hotel. From there we went to Panajanchel Guatemala, which sits on the edge of Lake Atitlan. Now lake Atitlan is simply beautiful. It's the deepest lake in the world and it is surrounded on all sides by dormant volcanoes. The lake itself was formed from the caldron of a volcano, which explains why it is so deep. Now as beautiful as the lake is, the city of Panajanchel sits safely on the other end of the beauty spectrum. The city is nothing more than a strip of merchants selling Guatemalan goods to tourists. Prior to entering the city of Panajanchel we passed another pueblito that made the most disturbing scenes in a Mad Max movie look relatively tame in comparison. (and I'm not joking about that!) We hadn't planed on staying too long in Panajanchel. We were just using it as a jumping off point for a place I discovered on my last trip through the area.

On the other side of the lake in the small and hard to get to city of Santiago de Atitlan there is the most amazing hotel.
It's owned and run by an American couple. Seems some 20 years ago their mother was a rich LA housewife who got a divorce. She was fed up with suburbia and decided that this remote town in Guatemala would be her new home. She lured her son down there to help fix up the place. While he was helping out he met another American art student who he later married. They have run the Posada de Santiago hotel for the past 20 years.
Anyway. It just so happened that the three days we were spending in Santiago coincided with one of the biggest Mayan holidays of the year. Yup it ranked right up there with Easter and Christmas. Mayans from all over the countryside were making their way to the city for the big festival and dance in the town's main square. The shear number of Mayan Indians in the small town caught Bonnie Joe and me off guard. They were all dressed in traditional clothing, which was spectacular to see. Their outfits are so colorful. The men too dressed in traditional clothing, which is rare even in Guatemala. The city market was a spectacle that made us all really feel as though we had gone back in time. I'd try to do the scene justice here in the journal but I can't so I won't.
This is where it starts to get interesting. We found out that part of the festival is to pay tribute to the patron saint Maximon. Now Maximon is a drinking, smoking, whoring saint. Which ranks him high in what I look for in a saint but to more conventional practitioners of the cloth this may seem to be slightly at odds with what the good book might have to say about such behavior. Anyway, we payed some children a few quetzals to take us to see the Patron Saint Maximon.

You see some family gets the great honor of housing a life-size doll of the Patron Saint in their house for a year.
Their job for the year is to keep a cigarette or cigar lit in his mouth and to periodically sprinkle him with alcohol. People come throughout the year to offer Maximon cigarettes and alcohol in penance for their sins. I think the Vatican had a similar gig but something must have gone horribly awry. Anyway, the children led us down a long alley way in between Mayan houses until we came to a small home with smoke drifting out the windows. A few drunk men were gathered at the entrance. They waved us on in to behold the highly revered Maximon. What we saw left us all pretty much speechless. I mean what can you say to each other or to your hospitable hosts when there are dozens of dead stuffed cats hanging from the ceiling. They threw in a few stuffed javalinas (small pigs) to mix up the look and feel. Streamers, Christmas lights, incense, candles, smoke, bottles of alcohol, piles of cigarettes and various other colorful items adorned the walls and ceiling. The men were all extremely intoxicated. They were drinking a corn type alcohol in hopes of reaching some hallucinogenic state. We gazed at the mighty Maxinon, nodded graciously to our hosts indicating that we were indeed impressed with not only what we perceived as Maximon's well being but that his accommodations also met to our liking. After they kindly acknowledged our pleasure we put our tails between our legs and got the hell out of there.
I think the expression, 'What the fuck was that?' has never been used more appropriately.

We ambled from Maximon back through the town towards our hotel. We passed a small fair in front of the city's main church. There were the typical fair type rides. Although, these rides were definitely of the third world variety. Now to those of you who have never been to a third world county let me just tell ya that even the most hardened American 'carny' in the most backward backwoods town would be way way too embarrassed to let ya ride on such contraptions.
Now there was one ride that stood above all others! The Ferris wheel was the pride and joy of the festival. The line of excited Mayans stood long and full of happy Mayan children waiting their turn. This was THE ride. The ride of the year. Now I'm a guy who likes to know how things work. I always have and I suppose I always will have a yearning to see just how and why something works the way it does. So I start to inspect this here Ferris wheel with the eye of an engineer. I'm thinking to myself, that thing doesn't look to sturdy or to safe and I think it was built well well before my time. (and I'm getting older). I'm also a bit of a gambler. I often look at things in terms of probabilities. Now I'm watching the Ferris wheel go round and round and I'm thinking to myself, heck if that thing has been working like it has been for the past 60 something years, what are the odds it's gonna break on the next go around. To the laymen psychiatrist this is also known as rationalizing one's actions. I know this. I know I'm trying to somehow convince myself to climb aboard.
Now the mechanical system responsible for powering the Ferris wheel may begin to convey the caliber and quality of the ride. Imagine if you will a very old car. Let's imagine a 1945 model T type Ford. Now this Ford probably had a good life back in its day. Probably drove around a nice family or two. But something happened to this Ford as the years rolled on. Perhaps a small mishap in the parking lot a dent here a dent there. Then it started to become old. It started to become too costly to fix and it wound up in a dump. There it sat for approx 12 years until someone with very little resources thought they might be able to use it for something. So they took it back to their shop and cut off all the quarter panels. They were too rusted to repair and looked unsightly. The hood and trunk had to go too. The tires on the passenger side really were in bad shape so those got removed. Now what was left was a shell of an old car with only two wheels, with an engine sitting in between two axels and a drive train. Now some enterprising carny saw this car and thought to himself. Ya know if that old car were strapped down to some wooden beams and we were to cut the rubber of the two remaining tires on the passenger side we just might be able to use that to run a Ferris wheel ride. We could run a metal cable around those two tires and along side of a Ferris wheel and make a mint. Put the car in first, take some folks on a slow ride, put the car in second and maybe even give them a little thrill. To mix things up we could throw her in reverse. Well God bless America if someone didn't have the vision to breath some life back into that old Ford and use her to make the most rootin' tootin' ride at the Mayan festival.

Bonnie looked at me and I looked at her and we both knew we had to ride her. We couldn't just walk away. We couldn't just turn our backs on this Ferris wheel. So we cast caution to the wind and actually paid 5 quetzals to ride. What transpired was the most horrifying and exciting ride of my life. Up we went in the rickety contraption grasping as hard as we could to the sides of the seats. I was doing ok until the 12-year-old boy driving the car running the Ferris wheel put the car into third gear. Then I saw Jesus, The lord our God, Mohammad, Buddha, you name it, if it even had the slightest chance of saving my ass I was asking for a little help. After what seemed like an eternity we did make it safely off the ride. I thanked all higher beings for their input in the matter and we made our way back to the hotel.
Now Joe and Bonnie had had it. They were pretty much rung ragged by all the commotion of the day. The Ferris wheel ride left me feeling like I had just cheated death. I was ready to see what else the world could throw my way. So as the sun set and darkness fell across the land, I thought it might be a good idea to see what went on at a Mayan festival after hours. So out into the darkness I journeyed. Alone I walked into town. It was dark and I didn't have a flashlight but the moon was full and I could just make out the road and the silhouettes of fellow night owls. As I neared the town I heard music coming from a remote house up on a hillside. At first I thought it might be the echo of the town's main music festival off the side of the volcano but I was too far away from town for that. No there was definitely music coming from a house up along the hillside. There are times when you do things that are either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid. Perhaps it was the thrill of cheating death by safely escaping the clutches of the Ferris wheel or perhaps it was a subconscious desire to hurt myself. I'm not sure which but I decided to make my way off through the hillside out into the back alleys of this remote town to find the source of the music.
I walked down long dirty alleyways zig zagging in between houses where the entire family lived in one smoky dirty room. Their curious faces puzzled as to why a lone American might be traipsing through their neighborhood at such hours. As I neared the source of the music I started to see many men with their machetes. They were still dressed in their work clothes and were still carrying their machetes. I asked the men about the music and it's source. They pointed just ahead. As I rounded the next corner I saw a gaggle of Mayan women pressed up against a low wall all trying desperately to peer over into a very tiny courtyard. I tentatively pushed on ahead through the women and into the courtyard. Wow! I had really stumbled into something bizarre. I thought the Maximon scene in town and the Ferris wheel had tested my limits but nope. This took the cake. This was unlike anything I had ever seen before.
I had stepped right into what is called a 'cofra' or an intimate Mayan ceremony. I found myself on a tiny dirt dance floor. There was a full on 12-piece band playing in a tiny tiny corner of a tiny tiny courtyard. I'm guessing the whole area the dance floor and the band occupied about a 10 foot by 10 foot square area. In front of the band were very intoxicated men dancing in what looked like a trance like state. Apparently women were not encouraged to dance. They were banished to the alleyway outside. I stood awkwardly in the center of the dance floor. I was obviously an outsider and a fairly clueless tourist who was way way off the beaten path. Well it was kill or be killed. So I thought to myself, hell when in Rome do as the Romans. So I too started dancing with the drunk Mayan men. They went wild when they saw that I wanted to participate in their drunken stupor. I'm not sure what the appropriate way to dance with an intoxicated Mayan is. Dancing can be tricky. It's hard enough dancing with a woman in the states. But on a dirt dance floor surrounded by Mayans in a trance like state? I mean who leads? Who follows? What kind of dancing is this? Apparently they were too drunk to care how I was dancing. They grabed my hands and we did a little jig. I twirled one of the Mayan men around and his eyes lit up like I had just raised the dead. He was very excited about being twirled around. I guess you could say it was his first twirl. I know exciting!
Anyway, out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of something across the dance floor. Smoke was coming out of a small room, which was just teaming with people. That was where the real action was. So I worked my way across the dirt dance floor towards the smoking room. OK! Now I had thought I had seen a bit in my day. I had thought that my past travels could have prepared me for just about any sight. But I don't even think Steven Speilberg could have conjured up this scene. I'm not sure if the Maximon doll we had seen earlier in the day had gotten carried here or this was a different Maximon doll but their was a life size doll smoking a lit cigar in one hand and a bottle of alcohol in the other. There were so many candles in front of Maximon that the whole room was lit with a eerie flickering glow. There was an old and revered looking Mayan man with an impressive turban swinging incense burners. He was standing over an old Mayan woman who was on her knees wailing. I suspect he was saying a prayer for her. The room was filled with intoxicated Indians dancing. There were some women dancing in this room. I suspect they may have been prostitutes or women who have been outcast from typical Mayan society. They looked very weathered and everyone was extremely intoxicated. They were so drunk that they were struggling to even stand up. I think most of the people in that room had reached some hallucinogenic state. There was a strange glossing over of their eyes and they were all chanting and writhing about. I was feeling a bit overwhelmed. The room was absolutely packed with people and smoke. I stood with my mouth agape and just tried to soak in the scene. No participating in this ritual. It was too much for me. I decided I should probably go before someone in a trance like state decided I was some sort of demon and the rest of the crew fell into line. I backed out of the room with my eyes on the hallucinogenic men with the biggest machetes.
I was grateful to reach the street in safety. I went on in to town walked around the fair at night. Lot's of happy Mayan children playing games and riding rides. I was a little shaken by the previous experience so I decided to cut my losses and go back to the hotel. T
he next day we just lazed about the hotel and walked into town and did a little shopping. The last time I was in Santiago I saw a painting that I wanted to buy but didn't. It was one of those items that you really didn't need, was a little too expensive would be too hard to carry home safely, etc. etc. etc. Anyway, I have been kicking myself ever since. So this time I thought I would look for a painting to buy. On my last trip I had seen a number of extraordinary paintings. This time however, I didn't see but 4 paintings in the whole town that were of the quality I had hoped to find.
There was one painting however that stopped me in my tracks. It was an exquisite painting of an old Mayan woman's face. She was holding a candle. I couldn't believe all the color and detail of the painting. This was definitely the showstopper for the store. This artist had real talent. I asked him why there were no other paintings of that quality in his store. He explained that it takes a long long time to paint a painting like that and an even longer time to sell. Most of the tourists traveling through want a cheap keepsake from their trip. We did a little haggling over the price and then I bought the painting. I can't wait to see it hanging on my wall.
Click on the picture to the right to see a larger image.
After I bought the painting the artist and I talked briefly. He said that one of his paintings was in a Gallery in the United States. Believe it or not, he pulled out a brochure from a Gallery on Kirby Lane in Austin Texas. The Gallery is no more than 3 miles from my house. What are the odds of that?
I was so excited about the Mayan festival from the previous night that I convinced Bonnie to go to the fair with me at night. So Bonnie and I took a flashlight and headed into town. I took Bonnie back to the 'cofra' I had stumbled across from the previous night. I had to show it to her. Otherwise, no one would have believed me that such a place existed. Bonnie is such a trooper. It's hard to faze that girl. She just puts a smile on her face and says, 'ok let's go.' So Bonnie and I worm our way through the back alleyways until we see the gaggle of Mayan women. Bonnie and I pushed on through to the dance floor. This time there were only two people dancing. A man and a women although they didn't really seem to be dancing together. So I grabbed the man and Bonnie grabbed the woman and we all did a little jig. Strange Strange Strange. Anyway, then Bonnie and I pushed on through the dance floor to the back room where we danced together in front of the Maximon doll. I wasn't getting good vibes from everyone this time. Perhaps bringing a woman into their den wasn't the best idea. So we left pretty quickly.
Now that got the adrenaline flowing. By the time we reached the town there was simply only one obvious thing left to do. That's right! The ferris wheel was calling us. We had beaten death twice in the past 24 hours. We were on a roll so we again bought our tickets and climbed aboard. I didn't really think about the fact that it was just beginning to rain and there was lots of lightening we just jumped on. It was only after we had completed our first loop that I put two and two together. Hmmmmmm….. large steel structure, highest point in town. Not Good. Again I went down the path of what are the odds this large metal contraption would get struck by lightening in the next 10 minutes. Needless to say we made it off in one piece.
From the lake we journeyed north up into the mountains of Guatemala. I had heard of a series of emerald green cascading waterfalls in the middle of Guatemala that were supposedly one of the prettiest places in the country.
A peace corp. volunteer from the last trip told me about it. I had never been to that part of Guatemala before so I wasn't sure exactly what to expect. Joe and Bonnie were game to go explore this region so we headed north by bus.
We went through Guatemala city which is a god awful city. It's really hard to convey how a large third world country city can be so chaotic and dirty. I'm sure there are nice parts of the city I just didn't go through any. Smoke from buses fills the air and chokes the life out of just about everything. It's hard to believe just how a city can deteriorate. Nothing makes you appreciate the good ol' USA like taking a bus through a large dirty city in the thirld world. Thanks Unlce Sam. I love ya man!!!!!
We pushed on through to Coban, which was another dirty gross city. We were a bit disappointed after traveling so far. However, we didn't really come to see Coban we were just using it as a jumping off point for the trip out to the emerald cascading waterfalls. I arranged for a guide to take us to the waterfalls and a cave that was near the falls. We left early the next morning. Joe had a moment and decided he had done enough crazy bus rides so he opted out at the last minute. Bonnie and I jumped in the back of a pickup and headed off. I knew that we were going to take a 3 hour bumpy ride through the back country but that didn't really mean anything to me until we hit the bumpy road about 10 minutes into our trip at approx. 60 miles an hour. Bonnie and I were hanging on for dear life in the back of the pickup. Our driver…. How shall I say this….. WAS HAULING ASS!!!! To be honest. If I was driving someone else's pickup and were being chased by wild intoxicated Mayan Indians waving machetes, I don't think I could have caught this guy. We were moving across the back roads of Guetamala at warp speed. It was great fun! One of the highlights of the trip.
The countryside was incredibly beautiful. There were no cities for the entire 3 hour journey. Just countryside: coffee plantations, cardamom fields, flowers, palm trees, pine trees. Stunning. We reached the emerald cascading waterfalls.
Bonnie and I went for a dip and explored the area. We had lunch and then stopped off at quite an impressive cave. The cave had impressive formations but the entire cave was covered with soot. I suppose it was used for rituals and there must have been lots of incense, candles and torches. Now it's lit by light bulbs but there is a layer of soot on everything. After the cave we headed back to the city of Coban to meet Joe. I was a little worried about him alone in that city but he was fine. He was happy and waiting for us at our hotel. We tried to make plans to get out of that city as soon as possible but kept getting different answers on prices and schedules. It was getting late and nobody seemed to know anything.
We opted to just show up at the airport in the morning to try and find a flight to Tikal. I was shocked to discover that there was no terminal at the airport. It was just a field with a few hangers and a bunch of pilots standing around. It was time to start haggling over who was going to take us for the least amount of money.
We looked over a few of the planes and opted for a 4 seater that looked relatively new. We paid the pilot cash and off we went. I almost wet my pants when as the plane was taking off my fucking door opened. My door opened.
The one my shoulder was pressing against, open. The experienced pilot (did I mention he looked like he was about 19) upon seeing the terror on my face calmly explained, 'no problema no problema.' Yeah no fuckin' problema for you your god damn door shuts. So off we flew over Guatemala, me trying desperately to sit up straight an not to lean against the door. Killing me! Ok so I'm trying to convince myself that everything is fine. Not much I can do about the situation now that I'm sitting 7 thousand feet about the jungle. I'm starting to calm down. We're a good 35 minutes into the flight when I smell smoke. Perhaps it's just a hint of smoke. Probably it's nothing to worry about. Then more smoke. Yep! Definitely smoke. Bonnie Joe and I all looked at each other and without saying a word had a long conversation about how we all felt about the smell of smoke. Again the experienced pilot calmly explained, 'no problema no problema' Oh for god sakes! I'm sitting in a smoking plane at 7 thousand feet with my shoulder pressing against a door that won't latch closed. What's next? Luckily we touched down without issue. I guess that guy was right. No problema.
So off we went to Tikal. Now Tikal is without a doubt one of my favorite places.
To see the sun set over the jungle from the top of the temple of the lost world is an experience not to be missed. The sounds of the jungle are just so incredibly moving. The cacophony of the toucans, parrots and howler monkeys just sends chills down your spine. If you want to really treat yourself, go to Tikal for either a sunrise or sunset. It's as good as it gets!
OK enough typing for now. I doubt anyone read the whole boring journal entry anyways.
I miss everyone and look forward to returning home.
Big Hug!
My Travel Journal
Saturday, July 28, 2001