Saturday, January 23, 2016

Guatemala Journey: Guatemala City -- December 2 - 4, 2015

Campaign Planning

When we ordered our replacement dinghy in late November we were told it would take four-to-six weeks for delivery. We considered spending that time at the dock e-mailing anxious requests for delivery updates but that didn't sound like much fun . . .  so we decided to spend the waiting time seeing more of Central America. Additionally, our 90-day authorization to be within the Central America Four (Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras) was set to expire in December. One way to get a new 90-day tourist card is to take a 72-or-more hour trip outside of the CA-4 and get a new 90-day tourist card upon re-entry. Rather than travel south to Costa Rica, which we hope to sail to - someday soonishly - we decided to accomplish both goals by taking a trip in Guatemala with a side trip to Belize. 

We will share our almost month-long trip in several posts: recollections, travel suggestions/tips and many pictures. For those for whom that may be TMI, here's a short version of the trip:

The Text Version

December 2-30, 2015:
  • Ciudad de Guatemala: lots of cars and buses, too few emission controls; 3 good museums; 1 quetzal = 13 cents U.S. (too much math) 
  • Antigua ("everyone" loves it): very walk-able; Spanish-period ruins; good coffee; nice restaurants; big tour groups visit here; Molly's purse slit open (felt both bummed and stupid); forced onto a primarily cash economy to protect 1 surviving credit card; very nice man fixed purse for free
  • Lago Atitlán: volcano views; funky hotel in village of 750 souls (Jaibalito) accessible only by foot or boat; day-trip to Chichicastenango market ("everyone" goes); visited villages around the lake by water taxis; lots of U.S. and European hippies of all ages (yes, they are still with us!)
  • Quetzaltenango: hiking; village tour (more fun than expected); pleasant family-run hotel; better place to hang out than to be a tourist
  • Flew Guate to Flores; overnight in Flores; bus to Belize
  • Belize: excellent family-run jungle lodge; enjoyable fellow travelers; 2 big Maya sites; toucans and spider monkeys; 1 Belezian dollar = $.50 (easy math); English is the primary language (easier communications)
  • Hitched a ride back to Guatemala 
  • Tikal: jungle lodge at archaeological site entrance; great pool; much pyramid climbing; howler monkeys; turkey and tamales for Christmas Eve dinner
  • Flores: tourist central; good people watching; more Maya ruins; day trip around the lake (more fun than expected)
  • Flew Flores to Guate and bused to San Salvador; late dinner of appetizers in the Sheraton bar; back to US currency (no math required)
For those interested in more, we invite you to follow along:

Too Much, Lux'ry Bus (Our Apologies To The Who)

We hitched a ride from the coast to San Salvador with friends Jean (an operator of the Cruisers Rally to El Salvador) and Cherry (fellow cruiser). They dropped us at Pullmantur, a luxury bus line that runs between San Salvador and Ciudad de Guatemala (aka Guate). The Pullmantur terminal is at the Sheraton hotel, so we waited for our bus using the free Wi-Fi at the hotel restaurant. There we struck up a conversation with our waiter, who had worked at Hotel Bahia del Sol on the Estero Jaltepeque and knew Jean -- we got very good service when we told him she had dropped us off that morning!

The bus departed on time and was almost as advertised. [Travel Tip: WiFi never works on buses - we don't care what the ads say.] Best of all, the luxury treatment included a Pullmantur employee to take care of the border formalities - we didn't have to stand in line at or carry our bags across the Guatemalan border. The 233 kilometer ride, frigid air conditioning (they handed out blankets!), two movies, sodas, snacks and border crossing assistance = $35 each. It's the way to go.

[Travel Tip: Travelers familiar with Mexico's extensive system of luxury buses may be disappointed to find that in Central America luxury buses are limited to international routes (generally from one country's capital city to another). Our experience is that intra-country travel is somewhat . . . less luxurious.]

Guate - December 2 - 4

We didn't find much charm to Guate's pedestrian / tourist zone. In fact, as far as we can tell there are two reasons for non-business travelers to overnight in Guate: to make a travel connection or visit one of the city's many museums. If you do find yourself staying downtown, here are some thoughts:
  • Hotel:  We booked the Hilton Garden Inn using Hilton points, and paid $45 plus points a night for a lovely, big room. Like other big cities in the developing world Guate is pretty grubby and staying in a hotel that wasn't upped our enjoyment factor. 
  • Food: Pitaya Juice Bar - good coffee and fresh salads and sandwiches. The lauded nearby steak restaurant and the hotel restaurant - underwhelming. 
  • Tourist Shopping: The only good tchotchke shop we found in the central area was in the Holiday Inn (along with the Pullmantur terminal). The one at the Museo Ixchel is worth a visit. 
  • Taxis: Guate is a complex system of mostly one-way, turn-restricted streets and boulevards. When negotiating with taxi drivers keep in mind that even if a destination looks close on a map it may require driving several blocks in the wrong direction and executing some bizarre cross-traffic maneuvers.
  • Walking: Don't try to go too far on foot. The risk is that you'll end up on the wrong side of a miles-long subterranean road and end up walking way too far in choking smog to cross it. Trust us on this one.
Guate's general lack of charm aside it is the home to some very nice museums:

          Universidad Francisco Marroquin

The university has lovely grounds and is home to two museums - the Museo Popol Vuh and the Museo Ixchel. There's also a walkway of replicas of Maya stelae with an interesting back story. 

Stela - Replica

In the 1970's an American woman, Joan Connolly, approached the Guatemalan government with a proposal to create concrete replicas of Maya stelae and donate them to the national museum. Her idea was that the museum could use the replicas as a fundraiser by making them available for visitors to make rubbings (similar to the "brass rubbings" popular in Britain - now primarily limited to rubbings of replicas). 

The information on display at the university is a bit vague on this point, but it seems Ms. Connolly believed her proposal had been accepted because she made several spectacularly uncomfortable-sounding trips into the jungle to make molds of stelae. But apparently after several molds had been made the government said something like: Oh yeah, that replica idea. Well, uhm, we appreciate the effort but . . . no thanks.

Ms. Connolly went ahead and made some replica stelae in her back yard. Eight were displayed at the airport in Guate and were authentic-looking enough that one of them was stolen! When Ms. Connolly returned to the U.S. in the 1980's she donated her replicas to the university. One might guess the cost of shipping concrete stelae to the U.S. was prohibitive - but it was a nice gift anyway. 

We didn't make any rubbings - but we enjoyed seeing the replicas and reading her story.

University Grounds From The Deck of the Student Deli
(View Better Than Food)

           Museo Popol Vuh

Museo Popol Vuh

This small museum, on the grounds of the university, is named for the Popol Vuh (pronounced sort of like: poh-pohl vhoozh) a book which contains the K'iche Maya creation myth, ancestral stories and cosmology. The Popol Vuh was transcribed in Spanish and K'iche in the early 18th century by Father Ximenez, a Spanish Dominican priest. Scholars can't tell whether he was working from oral history or a written K'iche text that has since disappeared. 

A number of the stories of the Popol Vuh are reflected in Maya pottery that is much older than the Good Father's book.  For example:

The creation of mankind as described in the Popol Vuh took three different tries. First the gods created mankind from mud; this early prototype dissolved in the rain. Persons 2.0 were made of wood but lacked minds and souls and so were destroyed by the gods who, we are told, were bored with them. Finally the animals (who were apparently perfected earlier) gathered corn and the gods used that to create men and, while the men were sleeping, their wives. The Maya often refer to themselves as The People of Corn.

A Man of Corn

Another story in the Popol Vuh is of the hero twins, the Hunter and Jaguar Deer. These twins were born of Xquic who was impregnated by a skull that spit into her hand. The twins outsmarted their half-brothers and caused them to be turned into monkeys. They (the twins, not the monkeys) were then summoned to the underworld because they were playing ball too noisily (as had their father who, as a result, had become the aforementioned skull). The twins escaped and became constellations. 

Jaguar Twins

We wonder whether the hero twin stories were influenced by Father Ximenez's knowledge of biblical (betrayal among brothers), Greek (humans becoming constellations) and/or Roman (founding twins) myths  . . . or whether they are examples of cross-cultural psychological universality. We invite you to share a rum and some Joseph Campbell and think about that.

          Museo Ixchel (Del Traje Indigena)

This museum, also at the university is, as reflected in its name (Traditional Clothing of the Indigenous) a display of the clothing of the various indigenous groups (mostly Maya) of Guatemala. It rivals the textile museum we visited in San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas

A Close-Up of a Weaving

Embroidery - The Yoke of a Huipil

The curators have displayed some of the Maya textile art in many ways - some very dramatic.

Fajas (Belts) Used To Close The
Sarong-Like Skirts Worn By Maya Women
Suspended From The Ceiling

The museum also has displays of traditional clothing organized by the many Maya language groups of Guatemala. This knowledge would have come in handy throughout our travels in Guatemala . . . had we only been able to absorb everything we saw at the museum! 

           The National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography

Our third museum was the national museum of archaeology. It might have been better to visit this museum after our tour of Guatemala. We saw many stelae that had been removed from their sites, and visiting some of the sites first might have helped put the display into perspective. Or maybe both before and after. Or maybe just having better memories . . . .

Museum Courtyard

What Are These Guys Talking About?

Universal Pose

Context: Model 6'1" +/-

And that was our stay in Guate. We don't know if we'll return . . . but if we do pass through again, we'll want to see these museums again!

Next: La Antigua - a former capital city and today's charming tourist capital.

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