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Quetzals the Hard Way – Chelemhá Cloud Forest Reserve, Guatemala

Quetzal at Chelemha Cloud Forest Lodge

This is a male quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala. And, yes, that tail and those colors are totally real. 

Spotting quetzals during our time at Ranchito del Quetzal was eerily easy. All we had to do was get out of bed at first light and stumble down to the restaurant where as many as 10 quetzals at a time dutifully came out to greet us. However, our next attempt to see these technicolor birds, at Chelemhá Cloud Forest Reserve, was much harder work right from the get-go.

Getting to Chelemhá

First there was the matter of getting to the privately owned and run Chelemhá Cloud Forest Reserve, a 400 acre (172 hectare) chunk of land in the Yalijux Mountains in the Alta Verapaz region of Guatemala. We’ve driven to many places on the Trans-Americas Journey where we were told we’d need our 4×4 toughness. Often we got to the end of the road and realized that a rental car could have handled the road. Not this time.

We waved goodbye to pavement just a few miles past Ranchito del Quetzal and turned onto a well-graded dirt road. The biggest obstacle on this section was the number of road work trucks and pieces of big machinery since teams were busy prepping this section for pavement. Roughly two hours later we reached the town of Tucuru and turned off toward the reserve.

Road conditions remained perfectly acceptable until we reached the tiny town of Nuevo Vinaroz where the road took a turn for the worse with very deep ruts and seriously big rocks. From here on out the road was quite rough but mostly no big deal as long we drove very, very slowly. More or less three hours into the journey steep inclines were added to the mix as we climbed up above 7,500 feet (2,300 meters) where the reserve is located.

Some sections of the road were so steep that concrete strips had been poured on the ground at roughly wheel width for traction. We actually nearly overheated the engine for the first time on the entire Journey during some particularly slow, steep climbs and we had to pull over three times to let the engine cool down which gave us time to admire our surroundings and not just the road ahead.

Conservation, Chelemhá style

Chelemha Lodge

Chelemhá Lodge in the remote Chelemhá Cloud Forest Reserve in Guatemala.

We reached the reserve about four hours after turning off the pavement and it took about 10 seconds to fall in love. The narrow,  three-story, all-wood Chelemhá Lodge seems to spring out of a steep, tree-covered incline–not exactly natural, but totally appropriate.

Opened in 2005, profits from the lodge, which is owned and managed by a conservation group called Unión para Proteger el Bosque Nuboso (Union for Protecting the Cloud Forest) or UPROBON for short, are used to maintain the current reserve, enable the purchase of more land for protection and to fund projects including reforestation (UPROBON has planted more than 40,000 trees so far), local staff training and collaborations with the local Mayan Q’eqchi’ community including an eco-education program.

 

Supporting land conservation and animal habitat, spreading eco-awareness and enabling the local Mayan community aren’t the only reasons to visit the lodge.

A cloud forest cabin

Chelemhá’s Swiss/German ownership is evident in the simple yet gorgeous and efficient design and craftsmanship of the four room lodge which was made primarily from wood salvaged from fallen trees on the property. The construction has a minimalist, arts-and-crafts look and feel with hand made furniture, handy built-ins everywhere, a central circular staircase and clever nooks and crannies that make the most of the small spaces.

Chelemha Lodge

The cabin chic of Chelemhá Lodge in the remote Chelemhá Cloud Forest Reserve in Guatemala.

Even the candles (there’s no electricity) are handmade using the waxy fruit of the arrayan tree, just as the Mayans do. Shoes are not allowed inside the lodge (bring inside shoes or non-slip socks or slippers) and there’s a stash of rubber boots for use outside when it’s wet and muddy. This is a cloud forest after all.

Meals are prepared in an open kitchen using ingredients grown on an adjacent organic farm by host/manager/conservationist/cook Armin Schumacher, a Swiss man who’s been here for 14 years. The whole place is heated by a big cast iron wood-burning stove which also heats all the water needed for showers and cooking.

Armin - Chelemha Lodge

Host, conservationist, organic farmer and cook Armin Schumacher with some local, organic plums he was about to turn into delicious cobbler and jam at Chelemhá Lodge in the remote Chelemhá Cloud Forest Reserve in Guatemala.

Two levels of the lodge have wrap-around decks with feeders on every corner. These attract at least half a dozen different types of hummingbirds. So many hummingbirds visit the lodge that Armin has started collecting donations for the sugar he needs to make the syrup these tiny birds consume at an alarming rate.

Green throated Mountain gem

Hummingbirds at Chelemhá Lodge.

Chelemha Lodge view

Chelemhá Lodge with just some of the land that’s protected as part of the Chelemhá Cloud Forest Reserve in Guatemala.

 

A cloud forest quetzal nest

Hummingbirds are great, but we’d driven up to Chelemhá to see quetzals. The morning after our arrival we got up at 4:30, roused by the dinosaur-like sounds of a troop of howler monkeys and the delicious smells from the kitchen where Armin was busy making an enormous breakfast of fruit, granola, homemade bread, strong coffee, steel-cut oatmeal and eggs.

Chelemha hike

Hiking up to find quetzals in land protected as part of the Chelemhá Cloud Forest Reserve in Guatemala.

At 6:00 am local guide Rojeño arrived and we headed up, up, up into the high reaches of the reserve. A three mile (4.5 km) trail switch-backed its way past a few agricultural plots, into secondary growth forest making a comeback now that it’s protected then into dense primary cloud forest. Suddenly we were surrounded by enormous old giants which remind us of the sequoias in California–only here they’re draped in moss and mist.

This is where the quetzals thrive and it wasn’t long before Rojeño pointed out a tree trunk with the top missing. Though it was still rooted in the ground, the tree was dead and hollow. About midway up the trunk there was a round hole and inside that hole was a quetzal nest.

Quetzal at Chelemha Cloud Forest Lodge

This male quetzal emerged from its nest inside a hollow tree trunk and posed for us on a nearby branch in the Chelemhá Cloud Forest Reserve in Guatemala.

 

We staked out the nest and, after about half an hour, a male quetzal emerge from the hole and flew to a nearby branch where he began calling, flicking his elegant tail with every chirp. Incredibly, the bird remained on the branch for another 30 minutes, undisturbed by our picture taking. At times it almost seemed like he was posing.

We saw two more quetzals in the upper reaches of the reserve before descending back down to the lodge, satisfied.

Quetzal at Chelemha Cloud Forest Lodge

This male Quetzal emerged from its nest in a hollow tree trunk then posed for us on a nearby branch in the Chelemhá Cloud Forest Reserve in Guatemala.

Horned Passalid Beetle

This horned passalid beetle we encountered on a trail through the Chelemhá Cloud Forest Reserve was big enough to fill the palm of your hand.

Guatemalan Emerald Spiny Lizard

A Guatemalan emerald spiny lizard spotted on a trail through the Chelemhá Cloud Forest Reserve.

Bushy crested Jay

A bushy crested jay having breakfast near one of the wrap-around porches at the Chelemhá Lodge in Guatemala. 

Organically grown plums from the neighboring farm which supplies food to the Chelemhá Lodge in Guatemala.

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Quetzals the Easy Way – Biotopo de Quetzal, Guatemala

Cloud forest Biological Corridor - Alta Verapaz, Guatemala

Welcome to quetzal country in Guatemala.

The quetzal is Guatemala’s national bird and their money is named after it. It’s also one of the most impossible-looking species on the planet. The bird has iridescent feathers that change from bright green to dark blue to nearly black as the light shifts. Its overall color scheme includes an eye-popping mix of neon green, red, blue, yellow and white. The feathers on its tiny head are like a fluffy mohawk. Strange finger-like feathers seem to wrap around from its back toward the front of its chest as if to hug the bird. Its eyes are beady and black.The males sport tail feathers than can be more than three feet (one meter) long.

 

 

 

 

Guatemalan currency - 1 quetzal bill

A quetzal is pictured on the eponymously named Guatemalan currency.

 

The holy grail of birding

Quetzal Rancho de Quetzal - Alta Verapaz, Guatemala

A male quetzal in a trumpet tree, one of their favorites, above the restaurant at the Ranchito del Quetzal guesthouse in Guatemala.

Quetzals are also incredibly shy and prefer a very specific cloud forest habitat that only exists in a few places on earth. This makes the quetzal a must-spot for most birders and, frankly, for non-birders like us too. And so we headed for the Biotopo Mario Dary Rivera nature reserve, more commonly called the Biotopo de Quetzal in the Verapaz region of Guatemala in search of this unbelievably showy yet famously hard to spot bird.

Timing is (almost) everything

Quetzal Rancho de Quetzal - Alta Verapaz, Guatemala

A male quetzal near the restaurant at the Ranchito del Quetzal guesthouse in Guatemala.

Quetzals are “easiest” to see from March to June. That’s their mating season so they’re more active. This is also when the males’ tail feathers gain full length and splendor. We arrived in quetzal country in May with fingers crossed.

 

Location, location, location

We’d heard the rumors that quetzal sightings were practically guaranteed at a little guesthouse right next to the Biotopo de Quetzal called Ranchito del Quetzal Hotel & Restaurant. Whenever we hear the words “guaranteed” in association with any kind of animal sighting we roll our eyes. But we checked in anyway after driving past their sad, faded sign on the highway.

Yep, a renowned place to see quetzals is right on a major road. That’s really the only drawback at the Ranchito. The rooms are simple concrete block affairs but comfortable enough for  180Q (about US$23). There are great hiking trails on the guesthouse’s property (which literally shares a fence with the biotopo) and the owners, Flori and Don Julio, could not be more charming–even when they were knocking on our door before sun up asking “Quiren ver las quetzales?” (Do you want to see quetzals?).

Quetzal Rancho de Quetzal - Alta Verapaz, Guatemala

A male quetzal in flight.

 

Quetzals and coffee

Quetzal Rancho de Quetzal - Alta Verapaz, Guatemala

A male quetzal in a tree near the restaurant at the Ranchito del Quetzal guesthouse in Guatemala. Though this bird looks blue that’s just a trick of the light on its iridescent feathers.

We threw on clothes, grabbed binoculars and cameras and did our best to quietly hurry down to the restaurant where Flori had set out plastic chairs and made coffee. Don Julio, meanwhile, was calmly pointing at a trumpet tree (guarumo in Spanish) less than 40 feet (12 meters) away. Up in its branches was a male quetzal. Just like that. Quetzals love the fruit of the trumpet tree. Knowing that, Don Julio planted loads of them on his property years ago and now the quetzals know they can come here and eat.

We sat there in our comfy chairs sipped hot coffee and admired the birds for a couple of hours. As the sun came up we looked forward to really seeing their brilliant colors but the birds seemed to dislike the sun. They almost seemed to hide from it, waiting for a patch of clouds to obscure it before flying or feeding again.

 

Don’t hate us because they’re beautiful

Quetzal Rancho de Quetzal - Alta Verapaz, Guatemala

A male quetzal in a trumpet tree, one of their favorites, above the restaurant at the Ranchito del Quetzal guesthouse in Guatemala.

That same scenario repeated itself the next morning, minus the knock on the door since we now knew the routine. At one point we counted more than 10 quetzals in the same tree. It was getting ridiculous. To be honest these sightings came so easily they were almost anticlimactic. We certainly didn’t fell like we earned them. We never even set foot in the Biotopo del Quetzal. Hell, we barely had to get out of bed.

So we decided to visit a remote, privately owned nature preserve called the Chelemhá Cloud Forest Reserve. We had to work up a sweat, but we got even more amazing quetzal sightings.

Quetzal Rancho de Quetzal - Alta Verapaz, Guatemala

A female quetzal. Only the males grow long tail feathers.

 

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So Much More Than Semana Santa – Antigua, Guatemala

This post is part 6 of 6 in the series Semana Santa in Antigua

A Semana Santa procession begins inside the Santuario del Apóstol San Felipe as the faithful carry a huge float (called an anda) over an elaborate temporary carpet (called an alfombra).

Antigua, Guatemala is well known as the town that hosts one of the world’s biggest and most colorful religious festivals. Holy week, or Semana Santa in Spanish, is celebrated with elaborately made and profoundly temporary street carpets called alfombras and lots of somber and processions in which hundreds of the devout carry enormous floats (called andas) through the cobble stone streets all in an effort recreate the persecution, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In a word, Semana Santa in Antigua is epic and you should experience it if you can. But there are other great reasons to visit Antigua. We were part of the entire Semana Santa week in 2011 and also able (thanks Gene and Judy and Evelyn) to be able to explore Antigua above and beyond Semana Santa.

In the end, we spent more than 40 days in Antigua–more than almost any other destination on our Trans-Americas Journey so far. Here are our insider travel tips for having as good a time in this colonial gem of a town as we did.

Colonial streets of Antigua with Agua Volcano

Colonial architecture lines a cobblestone street in Antigua with the Agua Volcano–one of three that ring the city– in the distance.

 Must-sees in Antigua

There are at least a dozen churches in Antigua and at least half are in ruins thanks to the area’s seismic activity. We are not going to show you every single church in town. Suffice to say that each is unique and atmospheric, especially the ruined ones which have a sort of ancient Roman feel to them.

Santiago Cathedral is Antigua’s main church and it anchors the main square, Plaza Mayor.

Ruins of Santiago Cathedral - Antigua

These are the ruins of Antigua’s original Santiago Cathedral.

The ruins of Compania de Jesus in Antigua, Guatemala.

The ruins of the Santa Teresa church in Antigua, Guatemala.

The ruins of San Jose church in Antigua, Guatemala.

Learning Spanish in Antigua

There are at least twice as many Spanish schools in Antigua as there are churches. When we were in town Ana Díaz was just opening a brand new Spanish school called Antigua Plaza and she contacted us to see if we wanted to be among her first students. Nos dijo que si!

We spent every morning for the next week sitting at an antique wooden table in a lovely courtyard refreshing the Spanish we learned during lessons in Guadalajara and adding some new skills. It was fun and effective and we loved our teacher Brenda who was great at her job and gave us each adorable children’s notebooks. It’s also nice that Antigua Plaza has partnered with the serene Tabi House guesthouse so long-term students can get great accommodation too.

Santo Domingo El  Cerro Museum

One of the sculptures on display at Santo Domingo El Cerro, an art park, gallery complex and restraurant above Antigua, Guatemala.

Art in Antigua

The Casa Santo Domingo hotel owns a large chunk of land on a hill above Antigua which has been turned into an aviary, art galleries, sculpture garden and high-end restaurant (the prices were a lot more reasonable than we’d expected). They call it Santo Domingo del Cerro and it’s home to great art, great food, great views and it made a great place to go to do our Spanish homework. A totally free on demand shuttle runs between Casa Santo Domingo hotel and Santo Domingo del Cerro.

Arch of Santa Catalina - Antigua

The Arch of Santa Catalina serves as a gateway into Antigua, Guatemala.

View of Antigua and Agua Volcano from Cerro de la Cruz

Antigua, Guatemala and the Agua Volcano as seen from the Cerro de la Cruz viewpoint above town.

Hotels in Antigua

There are more fantastic hotels in every price point in Antigua than in any other destination in Guatemala. We’re happy to recommend one fabulous splurge and a great economical value. Let’s start at the top.

Agua Volcano from Ponza Verde

The Agua Volcano as seen from on one of the serene patios at Meson Panza Verde boutique hotel in Antigua, Guatemala.

Stunning Meson Panza Verde, one of the first high end boutique hotels in Antigua, will celebrate its 25th anniversary this year. Just 12 rooms are arranged in a traditional, colonial-style, open courtyard building. Rooms are big and full of rich fabrics and lots of wood and tile all accented with an unexpected collection of art–both colonial and modern. You can feel, see and touch old Antigua and new Antigua everywhere.

Hotel San Jorge has large, spotless rooms from $50. They all have fireplaces and they’re all arranged around a meticulously maintained and super-serene garden. There’s also Wi-Fi and a secure parking lot but the best amenity is your host, owner Evelyn Herrera. She’s a bilingual fountain of knowledge and assistance. You could not be in better hands. During Semana Santa (book ahead!) she even invites guests to help her create a traditional alfombra out of flowers on the street in front of the hotel. We don’t know of any other hotel in Antigua, in any price point, that offers that.

Antigua Municipal building

Antigua’s municipal building off the main square called Plaza Mayor.

It has to be said that Hotel Casa Santo Domingo was a disappointment. Yes, the hotel is housed in a breathtaking reinvention of what was the church and convent of Santo Domingo and the Santo Tomas de Aquino College which date back to the late 1500s. Yes, the hotel lands on luxe travel magazines’ “best of” lists. However, it’s also true that the rooms we toured and stayed in were disturbingly motel-like (especially the bathrooms and the tattered soft goods) even though room rates start at $250 per night.

We can’t advise you to check into Casa Santo Domingo but you should definitely checkout the museums on the grounds of the hotel (free for guests, 40Q, or US$5, for non-guests). That one fee gets you into museums containing religious art, archaeolgoical pieces, a vast liturgical silver collection and a creepy crypt.There’s also a modern art gallery and a strangely-compelling Pharmacy Museum. A tour of the grounds is given on Saturdays and on Sundays mass is held at 10 am in the stately (but wall-free) remains of the on-site cathedral.

La Merced church - Antigua, Guatemala

La Merced church in Antigua, Guatemala.

 Eating and drinking in Antigua

Drinking Absenth at Bistro Cinq in Antigua Guatemala

Drinking absynthe at Bistro Cinq in Antigua, Guatemala.

Even in a town full of  inventive restaurants (you can get great local dishes, superb sushi, classic Italian and more), Bistro Cinq stands out. Created and helmed by Chef Robbin Haas, a Florida native who spends part of the year in Antigua, Bistro Cinq lures you in with a welcoming metal-topped bar that is more than fully stocked. We enjoyed Pig’s Nose scotch, great wine and sampled some of the 12 types of absynthes on hand, each prepared in the traditional way (flame, water, sugar). The menu (tuna tartare, duck pot stickers, real burgers, profiteroles) is written on a blackboard and each dish is expertly executed by local chef Mario Godinez.

There’s no shortage of bars and cafes in Antigua but there’s something different about La Esquina. Maybe it’s the bar made from old bus parts. Or the smell of tasty chicken on the grill. Or the tempting handcrafted leather goods and jewelry and housewares in the window of the adjacent boutique (all at great prices and 20% off if you pay in cash). Or the DJs and bands performing live in the open courtyard. Or the…oh, just go and see for yourself.

La Esquina restaurant in Antigua

La Esquina bar, restaurant, boutique. live music venue and generally cool place to hang out in Antigua, Guatemala.

La Fondita offers about a dozen different traditional dishes. Pick what you want (a standard plate with a meat dish, a veg dish, thick Guatemalan tortillas and other sides) and  enjoy in a lovely back courtyard. It’s certainly not the cheapest meal in town, but our lunch was delicious and it’s the best place we found to sample a lot of different dishes in one spot and the atmosphere can’t be beat.

La Fondita restaurant in Antigua

The mind-boggling selection at La Fondita restaurant in Antigua, Guatemala.

The cheapest wine so far during the Trans-Americas Journey was at the supermarkets in Antigua where entirely drinkable bottles (mostly from Chile) go for less than $5.

A few blocks from Antigua’s central market (bustling every day of the week) is a two level restaurant called Weiner where just a few bucks gets you a plate of authentic German schnitzel. Go for the pork. And be hungry. This thing is huge.

Just off the main plaza is a tiny ice cream store called Sobremesa Helados Exoticos which sells sublime scoops of rich, exotic, gourmet flavors like jasmine blackberry, apple chipoltle, ginger guava, triple chocolate and caramel sea salt praline. Rumor has it they’re up to 50 different flavors which rotate on and off the menu.

Random facts about Antigua

  • Antigua was founded by the Spaniards in the early 16th Century and became the first capital of all of Central America. The city’s full name is Santiago de Antigua, though no one uses that anymore.
  • A very early governor of Antigua was Doña Beatriz de la Cueva, one of the first women in the region (and the world, for that matter) to hold such a high office. Unfortunately, she didn’t hold office for long. Twenty four hours after taking power in 1541 Volcano Agua blew it’s top. She was eventually killed in the disaster.
  • There is a plaque honoring L. Ron Hubbard, author and founder of the Church of Scientology, in the main plaza in Antigua. No one we asked could tell us why.
  • Antigua was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
  • Cobblestone streets are atmospheric but they’re a bitch to drive or walk on. Leave the heels at home and be prepared to marvel at the six-inchers women from Guatemala city (mostly) strut around in during weekend getaways to Antigua.
  • WARNING: An ATM scam has been going on in Antigua for years. Particularly afflicted are the ATMs at the banks that ring the main square. Avoid using them if at all possible. We used an ATM in a supermarket away from the square on numerous occasions and had no problems. We did have problems with pickpockets. Eric caught a hand in his pocket (and not in a good way) before the thief had the chance to snatch anything but many other travelers are not so lucky. Be wary. Antigua’s success at attracting tourists and gringo residents has also attracted an influx of unsavory types form nearby Guatemala City and they’re anxious to take what they can. Remember to pack your common sense.
La Merced Convent - Antigua, Guatemala

The La Merced Convent in Antigua, Guatemala.

 Day trips around Antigua

Edwin-boots

Don Roberto doing what he’s done all his life: made awesome (and SO affordable) handmade cowboy boots.

 

Seven miles from Antigua you’ll find the small town of Ciudad Veijo. This is where Don Roberto and his son Edwin Castillo live and work. The Castillo family has been hand-crafting cowboy boots for generations and they now design and make a line called Botas Rango. Some regional shoe stores sell their boots but the only place to get the insider price (starting at just 325Q or US$42) is by visting their home/workshop. Call +51000603 or email botascastillo (at) hotmail (dot) com (Spanish only) to set up an appointment. Custom orders can be done if you give them enough time.

 

Antigua is ringed by three volcanoes. One of them, Pacaya Volcano, has been a regular erupter since 1965. That is until May of 2010 when it ceased all activity. For now. Bear that  fact in mind before you book a hiking and camping trip to Pacaya which many local tour agencies are still selling with no mention of the fact that the volcano is not currently putting on the show visitors walk all the way up there to see. Unless, of course, you just want to take a steep, long walk.  Luckily our friends over at 2 Backpackers have a great video of  the lava and smoke show Pacaya Volcano used to put on.

We highly recommend a day trip to Lake Amatitlan (about an hour away from Antigua) for a visit to the Santa Teresita Banos Termales & Kawilal Spa. The sprawling, sparkling clean facility has many beautifully tiled outdoor thermal pools of varying temperatures and offers a timed and guided circuit which includes a delicious natural fruit smoothie and time in a eucalyptus-infused private steam room. From about US$15 per person (more if you add on spa services or other extras) it’s a bargain. Just be aware that the best prices are online only so check the web site for specials and book before you arrive.

Antigua Los Remedios church ruins

The ruins of Los Remedios church in Antigua, Guatemala.

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Mayan Moats – Laguna Petexbatún & Aguateca Archaeological Site, Guatemala

As if visiting archaeological sites wasn’t enough of an adventure, there are a handful (like Yaxchilan in Mexico) that are best accessed by boat which adds a thrill before you even get there.

Aguateca Archaeological Site by boat

It’s got the word “agua” right in the name and, in some ways, the roughly two hour boat ride that you have to take from the town of Sayaxche out to the Aguateca archaeological site was the best part of our visit to this once powerful Mayan city which dates back to 300 BC.

Rio Passion

The Rio la Pasión is the only highway to the Aguateca Mayan archaeoloical site in the Peten region of Guatemala. 

In Sayaxche we called a local boat man named Manuel (+ 502 59136012), then we piled into one of his small open-air boats and headed up the Rio la Pasión. The river eventually widened into what’s called Laguna Petexbatún. Surrounded by the Petexbatún Wildlife Refuge, the area is a favorite hang out for birds including herons, ahingas, cormorants and osprey. Not to mention crocodiles and iguanas.

Birds on Laguna Petexbatún on our way to the Aguateca Mayan archaeological site in the Peten region of Guatemala.

When we reached the site our boatman parked and we sloshed up a sloping hillside to the entrance. The hillside has natural springs which made the slope muddy and slippery so wear proper walking shoes for this one.

Archaeologists didn’t even know that the remains of this city were here until 1957, but they’ve unearthed a lot since then. The site is also bisected by an unusual grieta, a natural chasm that’s up to 80 feet (24 meters) deep.As you explore the trails around this sprawling site you can cross the chasm over the same very cool natural bridge that the Mayans used.

Aguateca Mayan archaeological site in the Peten region of Guatemala is best reached by boat.

Aguateca Mayan archaeological site in the Peten region of Guatemala.

You can camp for free at Aguateca in a big, flat, grassy area but you must be totally self-sufficient and you’d have to negotiate for your boatman to stay with you to ensure you have a ride back to Sayaxche.

Karen admiring the remarkably crisp carving on this stone stelae at Agauteca Mayan arcaheological site in Guatemala.

The Mayans who lived at Aguateca became powerful local rulers and they probably thought their watery location and hilltop perch afforded them some defense from their enemies. But it wasn’t enough. Archaeologists believe that an invading force ultimately breached Aguateca around 800 AD forcing the royal class to flee to nearby Punta de Chimino where they, again, relied on water to protect them.

Archaeologists believe that this palace was abandoned by the royal class as they made their escape from Aguateca around 800 AD.

This partially re-constructed stone stelae at the Aguateca Mayan arcaheolgoical site in Guatemala retains a lot of original carving.

These partially re-constructed stone stelae at the Aguateca Mayan arcaheolgoical site in Guatemala retains a lot of their original carving.

 

Chiminos Island Lodge on the world’s first Mayan-made island

When the royal class abandoned the beseiged city of Aguateca they headed for Punto de Chiminos, a spit of land just a few kilometers away. Once there, they started digging. Well, the royals probably didn’t start digging, but their servants sure did, ultimately cutting an impressive and enormous trench through dirt and rock to cut off the tip of the spit, creating a small island which they hoped would protect them from their enemies.

Mayans desperate to protect themselves from invaders are believed to have dug an enormous trench through earth and rock to turn the tip of Punto de Chiminos, above, into a man-made island. 

Today there’s a small lodge on Punto de Chiminos. The Chiminos Island Lodge has five stand-alone bungalows built amongst what remains of the city that the fleeing royals built here before they were ultimately overtaken.

Situated around the periphery of the island, the huge wooden rooms all have multiple beds, private bathrooms, big porches and generator electricity until 10 pm. There are hard wood floors and a lovely stone shower. Each bungalow also has a thatch roof with a screened “false ceiling” built under the thatch to keep grit and critters from falling into the room. Smart.

Our room at Chiminos Island Lodge where a violent wind and rain storm made us feel like we were about to be blow into the lagoon–or smashed by a falling ceiba tree.

At Chiminos Island Lodge you also get what amounts to your own private archaeological site to wander through. What the fleeing royals from Aguateca left behind has not been excavated but building mounds and even the ball court are obvious as you stroll the grounds. You can also peer into the impressive gash in the land that the Mayans made to create the island way back when.

Just be sure you’ve used good insect repellent before leaving your room. The mosquitoes love it here.

Batten down the hatches

After wandering around the island we returned to our room to watch the birds on Laguna Petexbatún below us, listen to the howler monkeys in the jungle all around us and take a nap. At dusk the wind picked up a little bit and we woke up thrilled. A breeze! Cooler temperatures! Fewer mosquitoes!

But the wind kept going until birds, beasts and trees were being blown sideways. Soon the rain came and the wind intensified even more. White caps appeared on the lagoon.

Over the next two hours the storm blew out our screens and ripped off sections of our thatch roof. With rain pouring into our room we stashed our belongings in the driest corner we could find and piled spare blankets on top of our bed to try and keep the mattress and base bedding dry.

Just as we were beginning to get really concerned about a tree falling on our room (we’d actually put our shoes on and packed our things, ready for a quick getaway), the dramatic storm passed.

A heron that survived the previous night’s violent storm heads out to find breakfast on Lagauan Petexbatún in Guatemala.

 

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Stelae! – Dos Pilas & El Ciebal Archaeological Sites, Guatemala

It can’t be avoided. If you want to get to the town of Sayaxche in the Peten region of northern Guatemala (and points beyond) you have to get on a low-tech little ferry and cross the Rio La Pasión. That includes horse-drawn carts, 18 wheelers and us.

Rio La Pasión is a pretty grand name for a fairly ho-hum waterway and an even more forgettable town. Honestly, Sayaxché is pretty shitty but it’s the gateway to some very nice Mayan archaeological sites.

Waiting for our turn to cross the Rio La Pasión on this ferry powered by a collection of outboard motors and hope.

 

Dos Pilas

This stelea a the Dos Pilas Mayan archaeological site was more than 15 feet tall and covered in still-legible carvings of Mayan glyphs.

The Dos Pilas site dates back to AD 629. It’s small, remote (a two hour drive plus a 30 minute walk from Sayaxche), mostly unexcavated and very lightly visited. We counted 30 names in the visitor registration book for the entire previous month. It does, however, have something that few other Mayan archaeological sites have: stone stairs decorated with glyphs as well as some of the tallest and most intact stelae (traditional carved stone story-telling slabs) in the known Mayan world.

 

 

 

 

 

Just a couple of the stelae at Dos Pilas Mayan archaeological site which still have extraordinarily crisp and detailed carving.

The Dos Pilas Mayan archaeological site offers a unique twist on the stelae: stone stairs carved with Mayan glyphs.

The carved stairs look like mini stelae lying on their sides and they made us wonder what the buildings they lead to must have looked like. We were left wondering since the structures themselves remain unearthed. The steps were only discovered in the 1990s so who knows what else is under there.

Archaeologists discoverd unusual stone stairs carved with Mayan glyphs at the Dos Pilas site in Guatemala.

Dos Pilas also has some impressively tall traditional stelae. The worn originals are protected by palapa roofs and replicas are placed conveniently nearby. There are also two natural springs (pilas), hence the site’s name and a bunch of caves in which archaeologists found evidence of Mayan rituals.

Did we mention that the Dos Pilas site is also free?

Archaeologists discovered unusual stone stairs carved with Mayan glyphs at the Dos Pilas site in Guatemala.

The few people who visit Dos Pilas Mayan archaeological site in northern Guatemala are greeted by this lone stelae in front of an unexcavated mound which conceals a building.

 

El Ceibal

One of the few structures which have been excavated at the El Ceibal Mayan archaeological site in Guatemala. The four stelae around it are placed at the cardinal points.

The city of El Ceibal (also sometimes referred to as Seibal) peaked around 840 AD in what is called the terminal period in the timeline of Mayan civilizations. It certainly proved terminal for El Ceibal as the city was mysteriously abandoned not long after its peak.

Yes, the Mayan carving on this huge stelae at the El Ceibal archaeological site in Guatemala, is original. 

Like Dos Pilas, El Ceibal’s claim to fame involves carved rock. When we’re done oohing and ahhing over the diorama we notice some huge stelae near the caretakers’ quarters. The staff brush those off as mere copies and send us on our way, into the site itself, to see the real things. And they are remarkable.

Yes, the Mayan carving on this stelae at the El Ceibal archaeological site in Guatemala, is original.

At El Ceibal you can see more than a dozen massive stelae all of them amazingly crisp and clear. Very few structures have been unearthed here, but one small structure is visible with stelae placed around it at the cardinal points and there’s an unusual round stone building at the site too.

An unusual round building at the El Ceibal Mayan archaeological site in northern Guatemala. 

 

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Best Of the Trans-Americas Journey 2011 – Best Hotels

This post is part 4 of 4 in the series Best of 2011

Welcome to Part 3 in our  “Best Of 2011″ series of posts. Part 3 is all about the Best Hotels of the year (from showers with a view to urban eco hotels). Part 1 covers the Best Adventures & Attractions of 2011 and Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages.

Yes, end of year round-ups can be lame. On the other hand, they can also be a valuable chance for us to look back on the year that was and remember just how damn lucky we are.

Done right, an end of year round-up can also be a quick and easy way for you to get a dose of the best tips, tricks and truths that made our Trans-Americas Journey travels so special in 2011. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll hit the road yourself in 2012 (or 2013, no pressure).

First, a few relevant stats:

In 2011 the Trans-Americas Journey…

…thoroughly explored four countries (Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador)

…drove 8,055 miles (we said they were small countries)

…spent $2,300 on fuel (yes, that’s in US dollars)

…had one flat tire (we drove over a nail in Copan, Honduras)

…bounced over about a billion topes/tumulos (viscious Latin American speed bumps) and through twice that many pot holes

We also spent nearly all 365 nights of 2011 in hotels (when we weren’t lucky enough to be staying with new friends, old friends or family). In no particular order, here…

The best hotels of 2011

Best private plunge pool: The Honeymoon Cabana at Francis Ford Coppola’s Blancaneaux Lodge in Belize has many romantic touches. The most irresistible one is the private plunge pool. It’s roomier and deeper that most plunge pools and it’s ultra-private with sweeping views over the hills and forests of the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve and Privassion Creek below.

Best eco hotel: Sure Hotel Arbol de Fuego in San Salvador (the capital of El Salvador) has made all the usual eco moves like long life bulbs and “please re-use your towels” signs. But this homey, tranquil boutique guesthouse has also adopted a ton of other initiatives (low-flow showers for example) that have resulted in epic reductions in energy use, water consumption and pollution.The owner, a passionately green woman named Carolina, has kept meticulous records of the profitable side effects her eco efforts. Her success has been so big and so well documented that Carolina is now helping other small hotels in El Salvador take the environmental plunge. BONUS: Hotel Arbol de Fuego is within walking distance of the pupuseria La Unica which serves what we consider to be the best pupusas in El Salvador.

Best massage room: The petite spa at Belcampo Belize (formerly Machaca Hill Rainforest Lodge) near Punta Gorda in Belize has just one massage room but it’s a doozy. An entire wall is floor to ceiling windows  with views into some of the 13,000 acres of jungle that surrounds the resort. Book a treatment in the morning or evening for the best chance of seeing toucans and howler monkeys right outside.

Best hostel kitchen: The shared kitchen at Casa Verde in Santa Ana, El Salvador has more tools and gadgets than the kitchen in our old apartment. It’s also spotless and there are two refrigerators–one entirely filled with ice-cold beer. Related thought: we’re loving this website that dishes about easy recipes that can be made in even the most basic hostel kitchen using cheap, available ingredients (and gadgets) with delicious results.

Best unexpected hotel moment: We were thrilled at the chance to witness the epic Semana Santa celebrations in Antigua, Guatemala. Then the owner of Hotel San Jorge (large, spotless rooms from $50 with fireplaces and Wi-Fi arranged around a meticuously maintined and super-serene garden) invited us to take it one step further. And so we found ourselves helping her create a traditional temporary street decoration called an alfombra on the road in front of her hotel. We don’t know of any other hotel in Antigua that offers this experience. Our advice is to book your Semana Santa room now.

Best beach house: It’s a perfect recipe: a rustic chic private beach house with four bedrooms, two bathrooms, small pool, hammock-filled deck, open air kitchen and living room all mere steps from the waves on a secluded beach. Even better, Los Caracoles, on Maculis beach in El Salvador, is owned and run by the same guys who operate the stunning Los Almendros hotel in Suchitoto–one of the best hotels in the country.

Best hotel for Mayanists: Hacienda San Lucas is a lovingly restored 100 year old family home which now oozes rustic charm in the foothills above Copán in Honduras which is home to the epic remains of the Mayan city of Copán. But you need not leave the hillside to get close to one of the most fascinating civilizations that ever existed. Hacienda San Lucas is run by Doña Flavia Cueva who is the daughter of a man roundly credited with preserving Copán and creating the archaeological discipline in Honduras.  Doña Flavia’s daughter, Frida Larios, has turned her artists’ eye to Mayan glyphs, transforming the traditional ancient stone carvings into modern graphic art which decorates the hotel. The kitchen turns out traditional Mayan dishes during five-course gourmet dinners and the hacienda is just a short walk away from a small, mysterious cluster of Mayan remains called Los Sapos.

Best outdoor shower: The outdoor “jungle showers” on the decks of the plush hillside suites at Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch in Belize are spacious and beautiful but odds are you’ll be too busy admiring the view of the Caves Branch River, karst hills and sprawling orange groves in this bucolic section of Western Belize to  notice the tile work and charming use of a tin bucket. The perfect way to wash off your cave adventures!

Best boutique hotel newcomer: Newly opened five room Casa ILB in San Salvador, El Salvador is minimal, elegant and (for now) shocking affordable with rates from $110 double including a lovely breakfast buffet. We did not want to leave.

 

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