Archive for August, 2011

Estelí, Nicaragua – America, not Africa

Dienstag, August 30th, 2011

Nicaragua – a country that sounds as if we would have to search for it in Africa instead of America. But it is right in the middle of the isthmus, it is Central America’s largest and poorest country – even Latin America’s second poorest after Haiti. It shall be the safest country for travel on the continental bridge although vigilance wouldn’t harm.

But the day starts with difficulties, the entry is delayed. First we have to detect that our electronic map for Nicaragua doesn’t function. We are so used to this indispensible combination of classic map navigation, intuition, asking locals, and auto GPS that we don’t want to go without the latter. has Garmin-compatible GPS maps for many countries to download including installation instructions (for Nicaragua for instance US$ 49.95 – not distinctively reasonable). Navigating is a bit more complicated than with the software provided by Garmin, but it works.

Next the gas station in El Paraiso refuses all my credit cards. (Fuel is most inexpensive in Mexico, and then it’s slowly getting more expensive to the south via Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua; fuel up in front of each border.) Right before the border I don’t have enough cash left what I usually do. The cashier has a bright moment and splits the amount in two sums, that works. Immediately in front of the border crossing Los Manos (around 500 m / yards) there would have been a tax-privileged gas station that offers fuel for a better price.

But we don’t get that far. The access road to the border is obstructed with waiting trucks on the right and left side, the only lane in the centre is blocked by a bus broken down, which can’t be towed for any reason. More than an hour passes before the parking vehicles are shunt back and forth so that there is a gap to pass the obstacle. From then on it goes fast. The aduana puts a stamp into the passport to verify the vehicle export, the migración provides the emigration stamp, and there are no costs. A young overbearing border helper wants 20 $ for his service for immigration, but sometime even he gets the meaning of the simple word, just consisting of the two letters N and O. Before leaving Honduran territory there is an animal check, but we neither transport pets nor breeding cattle. The exchange rate offered for Lempira to Cordoba is fair (100 Nicaraguan Córdoba / NIO are around 4.20 US$).

The Nicaraguan entry starts with vehicle disinfection (68 NIO). Nicaragua requests for the granted 30 days of stay a local insurance (12 US $). The insurance agents are official, and the paperwork can be done easily with them. The customs officer fills the forms, but she is happy to be helped. Another officer only peaks from outside into our opened cabin door to confirm the detail “RV”, but again we get off without vehicle search. This process is complimentary, unlike the immigration card for the passport at the migración. 12 US $ per person mature. It is important to get a receipt for all payments. Finally the border police check all papers and might ask for some copies (they forget to collect ours); title and vehicle registration document are necessary. There was nothing to complaint about friendliness and helpfulness of the Central American borders so far, it was even fast.

After 40 km we reach the Pan Americana, single thoroughfare in Nicaragua. First city is Estelí. At the UCA Miraflor office (ask around in town) we check for a place for the night in the Miraflor nature reserve (no entrance fee) where there is ecologic farming besides hiking and horse riding. They confirm we can take the road, but 4WD is necessary in rainy season. There are some pretty deep brooks to cross. Finca Lindos Ojos was recommended to us, it has some space for parking., camping 5 US$ per night, N 13°14’30.2’’ W 86°15’21.7’’.

El Paraiso, Honduras – Greed versus huge pizzas

Montag, August 29th, 2011

Via Danlí (with supermarket) we reach El Paraiso right before the Nicaraguan border. Not even one of the Honduran police officers who were regarded as extremely corrupt in the past (and partially are still today) wanted anything from us. One reason might be that we didn’t even touch the Pan Americana that’s mainly used by tourists. The country’s inhabitants are helpful and friendly, maybe even a bit lethargic: Honduras is the only of the Central American countries that never had a civil war of a revolution – despite military dictatorships.

In spite of its promising name „The Paradise“ El Paraiso is a nondescript quiet town. We ask for a spending a night in a completely run-down, decayed lido. After a glance to the truck and an extended pause for thought how much the tourists could be squeezed until the pips squeak the manager wants an absurd demand of 200 HNL. Greed involves the danger of getting nothing. Joerg jumps into the truck and just drives off. We have realized a pizzeria with big lot on the other side of town. The responsible there quickly consent to our wish. I change my tactic: Instead of asking for fees I make enquiries about the dinner. The pizzas are huge, on medium-sized instead of two with starter would have been enough for the two of us, but they are still delicious next day when cold. We don’t get a written invoice, that’s why we can’t comprehend why we pay less than calculated according to the menu. Recommended: Mi Pequeño Jardín, El Paraiso, N 13°53’04.1’’ W 86°33’15.4’’.

Zamorano, Honduras – Sausage and cheese instead of camping

Sonntag, August 28th, 2011

500 metres of elevation on a distance of a mile – that is the way we have to descend this morning. Again we need one and a half hours. Further, extensive clearance is necessary since branches subside in the course of two days. In other places branches broke off halfway and block the track. Finally arriving in Zamorano we aren’t lucky with the agricultural university: They don’t allow us to camp on the whole area. Not even in front of the hotel that’s run by the uni. We may only overnight if we rent a room – not cheep though. Too bad, we would have liked to see the education facility for agricultural engineers and economists that’s famous on the entire continent. We only call on the supermarket where beside regular articles milk, bread and meat products from university-owned production are sold. The Zamorana brand is available in other Honduran groceries as well, but selection and price are unbeatable here.

Few kilometres east of Zamorana we find shelter with Eco Parque Zamorana for 100 Lempira (N 14°01’13.0’’ W 86°58’58.1’’). The only thing they have in common with “eco” might be the thrifty use of swimming pool chemicals. But it’s a spacious and quiet camping spot anyway – eco or not.

Parque Nacional La Tigra, Honduras – Like Jurassic Park

Samstag, August 27th, 2011

It’s only one more kilometre to the park entrance but we wouldn’t have made it. Here are definitely too many trees. Clearance works wouldn’t have made ourselves popular with the park administration. The tiny indentation beside the entrance road wouldn’t have been ideal for camping either. The entrance fee of 10 US$ per person (can be paid in HNL) might support the park if pretty steep for what’s offered. With the ticket we receive a copied orientation map for the few hiking trails. Signposting isn’t as good as claimed, and the distance details don’t seem to be always correct.

Favourite routes are crossing the park to the second visitor centre and the hike to a waterfall. We decide for latter that starts a viewpoint. In the beginning trees are sparse but the closer we get to the cascade the more jungle-like and marshy it gets. Strange plants grow here; it looks a bit like scenes from Jurassic Park. We aren’t lucky with wildlife today, but the dark dense cloud forest and the not too sumptuous but 40 m high waterfall are nice.

Pulhapanzak / Tegucigalpa / El Rosario, Honduras – How to get a Unimog through cloud forest

Freitag, August 26th, 2011

Pulhapanzak is said to be Honduras’ most beautiful waterfall with its 42 m fall depth. And really, the cascades of Rio Lindo, to be admired during short strolls from different view points, are pretty. Swimming is better in dry season. Pulhapanzak isn’t far from Lago de Yojoa and costs 50 Lempira entrance fee pp. Camping would be allowed on the shady parking lot for another 50 HNL pp (Cataratas de Pulhapanzak, N 15°01’29.8’’ W 88°00’05.2’’). The CA 5 to the south is being extended to defuse some sharp bends and is partially in good condition. Restaurant and Hotel Granja D’Elia is worth a stop along the highway. The adjacent supermarket sells products of own production (bread, produce) and (expensive) imported delicacies. Dining shall be good in the Italian restaurant. The parking lot would be big enough for camping, but we feel it’s too close to the road, and too noisy. Instead we travel straight through Tegucigalpa, the state capital. We don’t see too much of the one-million-metropolis since there are well-built through-roads.

We decided to give every country a chance, even the Central American ones, so we have to visit a National Park here as well. There are quite a few in Honduras, but many of them resemble each other since they protect the remnants of rain forest, and they don’t have any infrastructure. We decide for the supposedly easiest accessible one, Parque Nacional La Tigra close to Tegucigalpa, and cross Valle de Angeles to reach El Rosario. Roads are getting tight, but the bus is still in front of us. Unfortunately it stops at the town square. Where to go now?

A very European looking pick-up driver points the way and then asks in German: “Is that you car vehicle?” It is. By chance he and his wife are owners of a small facility to rent cabins. He offers to camp in front of his door and to follow him. Since he seems to be busy with his guests he picked up from the bus I skip the usual questions if we could use the road with our vehicle’s size etc. He has seen it, I thought. A mistake. An extremely narrow gravel path in bad condition leads up to the mountain in steep sharp bends. The track isn’t thought for Unimog size, but we make it o.k. There are no means of getting out of the way, but no oncoming traffic as well. After almost half an hour we are on top. We’ve lost the white pick-up, but an old lady shows us where it has disappeared. “It’s only two more minutes”, she encourages us. Two minutes stretch to one hour for a few hundreds of meters. There are trees in the cloud forest, and they’re hanging low. Too low.

I try to guide my husband through a space between a wall and a strong branch – without success. Role reversal: Joerg tries to guide me through the same spot, same result. The unfortunate bough can’t be lifted from below. Eventually Joerg climbs on the cabin roof, lifts the branch and crawls along the roof whilst I slowly continue driving. That worked out somehow, but this was only the first hurdle. In the meantime the cabin-guy appears with a helpful machete. And so Joerg chops us a green tunnel sitting on the roof, defoliates, de-branches and deforests, during me manoeuvring through the bush. Half treetops land on the hood and obstruct my view. After another hour we’ve made our way through the jungle, arrived in front of the facility’s door, and are both completely shattered.

There are not many camping options at La Tigra National Park: Cabañas Mirador El Rosario, N 14°13’13.1’’ W 87°04’46.0’’; they sell home-made fruit wines and jams.

Lago de Yojoa, Honduras – About potholes and counter-police strategies

Donnerstag, August 25th, 2011

My travel literature states that roads are good in Honduras, potholes are rare, and police controls seldom. Let me say it this way: The amount of potholes exceeds by far the number of the country’s inhabitants (after all 8 mill.). Quite a few of them are so deep that we could easily open a fish-farming in them. The number of police controls also surpasses our expectations, but most of the time the officers just wave their hands. If not, my strategy proves itself: overwhelm them with talking. Beat them at their own game! Exactly as I have to sift the only interesting information out of a lecture lasting several minutes following a simple question (like “How do I get to…”) I fill them up with important and non-important information at the same time. As if I was keen on using my fragmentary Spanish I don’t tell them only what they want to know (where we come from right now), but also that we are Germans, what we have already seen in the country, where we’ll go now and what we plan to visit in future. I list all cities and sights I can remember even if I stretch the truth a bit. Perhaps I also tell them how beautiful the country is and how friendly the people are. That forces even the toughest officer to his knees. It is to remember to take the sunglasses off to show off blue eyes to their advantage. But at this point the policeman has already given up and lets us pass.

12 km in front of La Esperanza the potholes end because the road ends, and a rough dried mud track blends in. But as long as the low-loading vehicle is behind us (This dirt road would be a reason for an instant dismissal for every North American and European truck driver) and “school busses” or the more common coaster busses drive towards us we don’t have to worry. The CA 5 then is a good road for a change. We quickly reach Lago de Yojoa, the country’s largest lake, which isn’t huge but pretty and good for bird watching. We decide for the only official campground in Honduras I know: Honduyate Marina, camping at the lake shore, 100 HNL for two persons, N 14°51’29.5’’ W 87°57’16.9’’.

Gracias Lempira, Honduras – Welcome to banana republic

Mittwoch, August 24th, 2011

In the morning the weather is reliably good, and so we really can see El Salvador’s valleys, the volcanoes, and to Guatemala. The descend from El Pital mountain is gigantic: In 9.4 km (less than 6 mi) we descend 1214 m (3649 ft) of elevation. The border crossing El Poy to Honduras is situated only few kilometres north on CA 4. In El Salvador everything goes so fast and free that we nearly regret to leave the country.

Did the Salvadorians amaze us with their efficiency and professionalism, Honduras fulfils nearly all of our expectations regarding a Central American border crossing. Nearly, we have to be fair. No tramitadores appear, border helpers, for whose obtrusiveness Honduras is otherwise famous. The border crossing El Poy is a busy truck crossing, but there are probably not enough lucrative tourists at a distance from Pan Americana. Passport processing is fast. We fill a form that remains in the passport and pay 3 US$ per person, then we head to aduana where the vehicle papers are issued. Here the officers fill in all forms themselves. Contrary to all my expectations this doesn’t accelerate the process. Quite the reverse! Perhaps we aren’t lucky and didn’t catch the brightest officer in the squad. Several dozen times (I missed to count) she shifts the papers from one side to the other and back. In doing so she throws about 50 % of them on the floor, picks them up and drops them again. The immigration paper nearly gets lost, that’s why she takes the plucky decision to staple the receipt to a passport sheet.

My travel guide asserts that Honduran graduates of the minimum six years school master reading, writing, and the tables from one to ten. After ten years of education they can speak some words of English and talk to a normally educated adult. I grant her that she might have overcome the first obstacle – although reading is such a thing. Despite the Salvadorian form in Spanish is with her she has problems to find the correct lines. Unfortunately she doesn’t like to be helped. On the side she must stuff some sweets down for strengthening and maintaining her figure. As everything has to be transferred into the computer it becomes even odder: The country Germany isn’t to be found and our vehicle type doesn’t exist as well.

No sooner the extensive problems are commonly solved than the bank is closed for lunch where we have to pay the fees. Who cares for one and a half hours more waiting time? Actually, the bank is situated on the left and not on the right side as the lady claimed, but we don’t want to be petty. At least I find out that the office wants to have each three (!) copies of all documents and stamps and I ask to receive all papers back to complete that in the meanwhile. After paying 635 Lempira (only cash, only in domestic currency, 100 Lempiras / HNL are around 5 US$) another officer takes over and then the rest is done quickly. After three and a half hours the customs officer wants to peak into the cabin but goes without entering it.

Then we are on the way on the up-and-down-roads typical for Central American highlands. The beggars are back, we didn’t see too many since Mexico. Especially kids like to stretch a rope over the road to stop cars. Honking and continue driving helps. One of several traffic controls stops us, but thanks to “tourist bonus” we just can continue driving. In the city of Gracias Lempira we look for a swimming bath with adjacent small hotel. After short consideration the boss approves us to camp. She leaves it up to us if and how much we pay. We think 100 Lempira to be proportionate (Balneario Villas de Ada, at the bypass of Gracias Lempira, signposted).

El Pitál, El Salvador – Mountain without view and more helpfulness

Montag, August 22nd, 2011

Suchitoto is located at Lago de Suchitlán known also as Embalse de Cerrón Grande, the country’s largest lake. Although nearly abandoned until the early 90s due to the civil war the city blossomed out in the meantime to the cultural capital and tourists’ favourite spot. The lake is embedded into a lovely green landscape with islands, mountains, and volcanoes. Boat excursions can be booked in a new touristic port with restaurants, pool, and crafts shops. We consider the prices (from 20 $ on for 30 min) to be excessive. Camping would be possible, but the parking lot is very crooked and levelling difficult (Puerto Turistico San Juan, N 13°56’45.6’’ W 89°00’58.9’’).

And again: Policemen asked for the way greet me with a handshake as well as a government official. We get to know that the shortcut to Aguilares is in good condition. And so we escape the heat at 250 m / 750 ft elevation into the mountains. In San Ignacio right before the Honduran border to the north we ask about El Pital, with 2730 m / 8200 ft the country’s highest mountain, just to be on the safe side. Signposting in El Salvador is much better than in Guatemala, even though not always complete. The asked pick-up driver approves everything: The road leads to the mountain, we can go there with Arminius, and camping is possible in Miramundo. Two minutes later the same red pick-up is in front of us – he must have taken a shortcut – and shows us the way to go. In the course of the stretch we turn into a forest road, and of course we discuss: Are we safe? Where does the man lure us to? I consider him as trustworthy but lay out my handy companion-chopper ready just as a precaution.

After 13 km hotel Miramundo comes into sight. The entrance clearance wouldn’t be sufficient, but not much further there is the mentioned campground. The driver says good-bye well-behaved, he just loved to help. What is going on with the Salvadorians? Can this be beaten? The camping is only a tent site on a slope. The parking area on the opposite side also belongs to the hotel Ventana del Cielo and is levelled. We can camp here for 5 $ a night, electricity and water could be organized. Another campground a bit to the back has a limited entrance clearance as well. (N 14°20’30.2’’ W 89°06’54.0’’)

We shall have the best view in the country from here in 2250 m / 6750 ft elevation: Not only nearly the entire El Salvador but Guatemala and its volcanoes Pacaya and Agua can be seen. This is out of the question for the moment, every afternoon clouds and thunderstorms come up, but in the morning it’s mostly clear.

San Salvador + Suchitoto, El Salvador – Too much help

Sonntag, August 21st, 2011

Friendly, funny, and helpful people everywhere: Three people stand around me at the gas station and give three different advices how to find the small road that leads up to Volcan San Salvador. How to find a common ground or the most likely variation? A young German speaking man visits the German School as he explains. He offers to drive on ahead with his father to show us the way, what we really appreciate.

The entrance fee to the park is 1 $ per person and vehicle. The parking lot is terribly small but somehow we are shifted in. A path along the edge of the crater in 1839 m / 5520 ft elevation offers gigantic views into the huge crater from several view points: It has a diameter of 1.5 km / 1 mi and is 543 m / 1630 ft deep with a smaller crater in the middle. It is possible to climb down into El Boquerón how it is called as well but the abseil down seems to be a case for specialists. It is not allowed to overnight here, and due to clouds there is no view to the capital San Salvador.

With 3 million inhabitants it has many slums. We quickly head further to the east where El Salvador’s biggest and deepest crater lake is situated. Access to Lago de Ilopango is difficult due to many buildings, but one spot is Turicentro Apulo – for 1 $ per person and car, of course. There is also a pool and camping would be possible. But the violent thunderstorm that sets in spoils the view again and so we head on. No problem in a tiny country like El Salvador.

Right before reaching Suchitoto we discover a sign that points to Turicentro Las Americas which we gladly follow. We find another swimming pool, although cloudy. The facility is in private hand and a bit run-down. We may camp of course, for altogether 15 $ a night including use of the pool. I knock down the outrageous price to 6 $, although several of the seven owners have to be consulted first. (Turicentro Las Americas, Suchitoto, N 13°52’20.7’’ W 89°02’14.6’’)

Colón, El Salvador – Pool instead of Pacific

Samstag, August 20th, 2011

Along the attractive crater lake Lago de Coatépeque we go, then shortly touch the Pan Americana, and further along the mainly paved and well-built roads to La Libertad at the Pacific coast. We thought about some beaching today. Since La Libertad is neither in security questions nor with other matters very exemplary we head west to El Zonte, a famous surfer beach where swimming probably wouldn’t have been possible due to big waves. Anyway, the trees hang too deep at the access road, so we continue to Los Cobanos from where we know that outcropped rocks protect the beach. There is no option to camp in town. A restaurant offers to use their parking lot, but finally we are neither convinced by the dark sand, the rain-brown water, nor the hot parking between walls.

Back to La Libertad we try it to the east at the Costa del Sol. Perhaps we hit the wrong beach, but here everything looks like not only to have seen better days but way better days. There is nothing to overnight here. The later hours doesn’t encourage to further experiments. In Colón close to San Salvador there is a governmental water park. A Salvadorian couple we’ve met on the road has pointed this out. We hope to find accommodation there.

At 6 p.m. on the dot we stand in front of long locked doors. Due to lack of alternative we shout and honk until we have the desired attention. The employee can’t decide on our request, this is a case for El Jefe. Here he comes, in towel and swimwear. As if there is nothing more normal he has the guard open the gate again, apologizes that he has to take 10 $ entrance fee for us and the truck (I relinquish discussions, I am just happy that we may enter) and that he doesn’t wear uniform. He offers to use the pools immediately. We don’t have to be asked twice and we jump into the big refreshing clean pools and get a massage under the artificial waterfall. They even switch on the light for us since it starts to darken. (Turicentro Los Chorros, Colón, N 13° 41’45.7’’ W 89°19’18.0’’)

Cerro Verde, El Salvador – Two volcanoes and 1300 stairs

Freitag, August 19th, 2011

In El Salvador Spanish is spoken (although many people understand English), the national currency is the US$. The Colón is still valid, but not in circulation any more. The park administration of Cerro Verde of wants 10 $ entrance fee incl. parking for each 24 hours from us. General rule for Central America, especially in El Salvador: haggle! Even in a national park. We stay two nights and one day for 15 instead of 20 $. There is not much we can do on our own. We can walk a few minutes to the old hotel that partially collapsed during an earthquake in 2001. In the still intact former cocktail lounge artesanías and sweets are sold today. The beautiful lookout terrace to Volcán Izalco is also still there. A 45-minutes nature trail to the peak of Cerro Verde and through the orchidarium has to be guided by a ranger – park rules.

The hikes to the other two volcanoes, the Izalco and the Santa Ana are guarded by rangers and armed police. They start at 11 a.m. each day and take four to four and a half hours including rest on the peak. There is 1 $ per person to pay for the guide, for Santa Ana additional 7 $ entrance fee to another park. This volcano blasted its top in 2005, spat after 100 years silence ashes and stones into the air and killed two people, but is accessible again. Nevertheless the hikes don’t always take part. A noisy group of 39 teenagers, teachers, two Japanese and two Canadians want to get to Izalco, so we have no other choice.

Izalco isn’t very easy to climb and has to be put into the category “exhausting” with 8 km / 5 mi ascend and descend. First 1300 stairs have to be gone down through Cerro Verde’s (2030 m / 6000 ft) dense forest to a saddle that connects to the 1910 m / 5730 ft high Izalco. The way up consists of sharp-edged stones and loose volcano sand. During the climb it gets hotter. Not only because the sun burns on the mountain without any vegetation. The rocks become hot, steam escapes from holes. On top it is possible to go down into the shallow crater hole. The view today isn’t very well, but we get a short glimpse of Cerro Verde and Santa Ana with its crater lake that is not accessible. For descending we use rivulets of soft lava sand that bring us half running half sliding quickly down. Then there are “only” 1300 stairs left to be climbed.

Cerro Verde, El Salvador – Crossing the border to El Salvador

Donnerstag, August 18th, 2011

El Salvador is calling us. Central America’s smallest country is highly populated (7.3 mill) and has one of the world’s highest crime rates. The rebels of the 12 years long cruel civil war from 1980 on are mostly unemployed, but still possess one million illegal weapons that they are willing to use. Why are we here in this country? Is it really so dreadful? We will report.

We spent the last days in Guatemala with Bill and Beatriz to update our website. Today, we are heading to the border crossing Valle Nuevo – Las Chinamas at CA 8. For the first time self-proclaimed border helpers bellow who offer to carry out the formalities for a fee. What seems a bit ridiculous in the face of the simple departure procedure: Take out the vehicle, get a stamp in the passport, and it doesn’t cost anything. There are no helpers on Salvadorian side after the river bridge. Even so we need only an hour to get everything over and done with. It might have been way faster, but I take long to fill the form with all the unfamiliar technical Spanish expressions. The details from the form are superficially verified, but again nobody is interested in our cabin’s content. There is even no drug control. We are sent to the Aduana where the vehicle import paper is stamped and to the Migracion where we our passports are registered. There is no new stamp in the passport; the Guatemalan departure stamp is valid. The residence permit is valid for 90 days, but the vehicle permit only 60 days and may not be exceeded under any circumstances. There is not one Centavo to pay – the first complimentary border crossing.

The Guatemalans were very friendly, but the Salvadorians fall over themselves to be helpful. We are greeted with a handshake not only at the border crossing but by completely strange people on the street whom we ask a question. It seems that they have to welcome personally every single precious tourist.

We arrive a quarter of an hour too late in Cerro Verde National Park. The administration left at 5 p.m., but the gates are left open since there are still visitors. It doesn’t take long and we are crowded around by policemen who watch the park. First they don’t want to let us camp here. There is so more administration and no superior to be asked. Further down on the road there was a campground. But we ask them to consider (puppy dog eyes provided) that the path could be too narrow for our vehicle. One of the visitors asked for help phones another police officer and suddenly we receive the permit to stay. Up here on the volcano Cerro Verde in 2000 m / 6000 ft elevation it is chilly, foggy, and rainy – unlike wide areas of El Salvador. On clear days it shall be possible to see the Pacific Ocean. (National Park Cerro Verde: N 13°49’36.5’’ W 89°37’27.5’’)

Quiriguá, Guatemala – Stele between banana

Samstag, August 13th, 2011

Quiriguá is another famous Maya place. Not too much because of the few excavated buildings but more because of the highest stone stele in this cultural environment that were ornately sculpted – without metal tools. The Maya knew neither metals nor the wheel.

Yesterday afternoon we started from Tikal via the fully developed CA 13 to the Caribbean coast. There is no wait at Rio Dulce thanks to a bridge. The river flows into the narrow lake Itzabal that pours in the Caribbean Sea close to Livingston. Since we made good progress we continued to Quiriguá at CA 9. Although the gates to the ruins were already closed one hour after opening hours the watchmen are always here. Our wish to visit the archaeological find the next morning and to camp on the secured ground seemed to be very understandable. The gate opened for us, and we didn’t have to pay anything. Just the opposite: The men offered us to use their bathroom and showers. After inspection we relinquish. But it was a nice gesture anyway (N 15°16’25.6’’ W 89°02’31.9’’).

For 80 Quetzals entrance fee we visit the stele today. The rectangular stone monuments show the prevailing ruler on two opposite sides and the date specification of the Mayan calendar on the two other faces. Hieroglyphic texts tell about the relation of the sovereign to the gods and about important historic events. For example like ruler Thunder Sky captured Eighteen Rabbits, the ruler of Copán in today’s Honduras, in the year 738, and sacrificed him the next day. However, another stele in Copán reports on Eighteen Rabbits who heroically fell fighting against Thunder Sky. The truth remains a secret. The largest stele is more than 10 m high and weighs 65 tons. In later years objects of zoomorphism were erected. The three to four metres long stone ashlars were brought into the shape of mystical animals (like a tortoise) and are also covered with symbols and characters that tell stories.

Quiriguá is located in the middle of a small remaining piece of rain forest. For miles around all trees and most animals fell victim to monoculture plantations. Their only task is to satisfy our hunger: our hunger for banana.

Tikal, Guatemala – About wildlife and pyramids

Freitag, August 12th, 2011

The big mighty Tikal influenced during its long eventful history the entire Maya world. Farmers already settled 600 BC; first buildings date from 200 BC. Tikal’s sovereign Big Paw won an important military victory in the year 292 AD with spear carriers that were used for the first time and dominated the region for the following 180 years as the only Great Power in these days. 300,000 to 500,000 people lived in the kingdom and fostered economical relations up to Teotihuacán in Mexico. A military defeat stagnated Tikal’s progress, but in 682 the empire experienced a renaissance. Most of the buildings that can be seen today date from this time. The last date display belongs to 879. What lead to the decline of the entire Mayan world is shrouded in mystery. In the meantime there are clues that a 200-years dry spell forced the inhabitants of the big cities to the exodus.

Tikal’s appeal today comes from the impressively high pyramids that tower above the primeval forest – some of them can be climbed on wood stairs – and from the numerous partially excavated small and large buildings as well as from the enormous size of the installation. Especially attractive is that the antique city is located in a tropical jungle that hasn’t been cleared. Instead paths were made through the rain forest that connects the building groups and where there is a chance to watch wildlife. Tikal belongs to the UNESCO world cultural heritage and is embedded into a national park that protects the still intact flora and fauna.

The most peculiar plant is the Ceiba tree that was sacred to the Maya. Characteristic for the hardwood is its high stem with the firm branches that split off horizontally just in the treetop and that are carriers for a lot of orchids, bromeliads, moss, and lichen. In the trees and the hanging liana howling and spider monkeys dash along. Light-blue wild turkeys stalk around, a grey fox rushes into the ruins. Little parrots and different toucan species quarrel in the treetops. King vultures hover above everything. Mosquitoes cover an interesting size spectrum and don’t find DEET 30 (the strongest repellent) to much abhorrent.

The archaeological finding is best to visit in the early morning. Then fog covers the area, there are not too many tourists yet and it is not too hot, since a couple of hours are necessary for the visit. There are beautiful views from the high temples over the endless seeming rain forest and the few buildings that tower the treetops. It is well worth to visit the Maya city, even though it is not inexpensive with 150 Quetzals per person. Camping is possible on a grassy field for 50 GTQ pp, and there are bathrooms and cold showers (N 17°13’29.4’’ W 89°36’40.2’’).

Lanquin, Guatemala – Miracles of nature: River tunnel with spa and bat cave

Mittwoch, August 10th, 2011

The biggest chance for a Quetzal sighting is between 5 and 6 in the morning. That’s what we were told and so our clock rings at 4:30 am. But even the early morning hike doesn’t change our “Quetzallessness”. The bird remains secret. I open my wallet, and look there is a Quetzal.

Via Cobán we head to Lanquin. The road changes on the last 20 km from a curvy mountain road to an unexpectedly narrow gravel road. The following 10 km to Semuc Champey aren’t much worse, only even narrower. There are two concrete strips at especially steep parts. The suspension bridge with somewhat rotten appearing wood planks is sturdier than discernible at a first glance and completely Unimog-suitable.

Semuc Champey is a very special miracle of nature and one of the best ones in the country. The mighty river Rio Cahabón squeezes with enormous speed through a natural limestone bridge, from where it dashes forward 300 m later. A small tributary partially pours down onto the bridge. Crystal-clear water flows in little waterfalls over lush green rocks in turquoise-coloured pools at the right temperature. They receive their colour from calcium carbonate that’s washed out from the limestone. Walking trails, partially wood stairs, lead to the beginning and end of the water tunnel, to the magnificent pools and to a viewpoint above the site. Access costs 10 GTQ per car and 50 per person. For another 50 Quetzals pp, we would be allowed to camp, but we have different plans today.

One mile in front of Lanquin coming from Cobán a sign points to Grutas de Lanquin. Another tributary of Rio Cahabón shoots out of the cave system, which shall be 100 km long. It is possible to swim in the river. Some hundred meters of the cave can be visited. The high stone steps are covered with a soft soap-like layer and can be basically called dangerous. There might be more interesting and better developed caves in the world. The few light bulbs only sparsely illuminate the scenery. But there are huge cavities as well as big stalactites and stalagmites. Actually they aren’t the reason for visiting; it’s the cave-dwelling animals.

Every evening hundreds of thousands of bats fly from the narrow entrance hole to search for food. At around 5 pm the first animals leave the cave, the main stream starts between 6:30 and 7 pm. It is possible to watch the spectacle from outside of the cave, but the guards leave the light on until 7 o’clock today so that we can watch the mass departure from the inside. The bats are real flying artists. Their flight style has nothing to do with the lethargic movements of birds. They zoom past us by a hair’s breadth, piloted by their radar system dead on target. As the guard switches off the light the generator noise dies down as well. Here we get rid of another 10 GTQ for the vehicle and 30 pp. The guards offered us camping without being asked and it doesn’t cost extra.

Grutas de Lanquin: N 15°34’44.8’’ W 89°59’23.8’’
Semuc Champey: N 15°32’11.0’’ W 89°57’16.4’’ (there are two hotels with small parking lots in front of the bridge where camping might be possible)
In Lanquin at the end of town heading to Cahabón camping is possible at El Retiro Lodge, 25 GTQ pp, shuttle service to Semuc Champey available: N 15°34’52.4’’ W 89°58’32.1’’

Biotopo Mario Dary Rivera, Guatemala – The invisible Quetzal

Dienstag, August 9th, 2011

The Quetzal is a story for itself. Mayan feather trimming, Guatemalan heraldic animal and domestic currency at the same time – the exceptionally beautiful bird has to fulfil many tasks. The timid animal inhabits the cloud forests from Mexican Chiapas down to Panama, but in Guatemala it became national symbol. The rare threatened species owns a resplendent outward appearance: metallic blue-green plumage with green headwear, blood-red chest mark and green tail feathers that can grow up to one metre long. The bird loves the cool and humid altitudes, which are highly threatened by deforestation and the resulting climate change. At least as adult the animal exclusively feeds on a vegetarian diet from avocadoes and other fruits.

In the cloud forest nature reserve in the district of Baja Verapaz a Quetzal sanctuary called Biotopo Mario Dary Rivera was established. The extravagant representative of the Trogon family is said to live here, but it is difficult to observe it. There are two hiking trails in the park. The short one is 2 km. On the long one we have to walk many – very many – steps. Within 4 km we hike from 1600 to 1900 m of elevation and down again, we have to add another half kilometre for a little spectacular viewpoint. Generally we have to say that there are excellently developed hiking trails in all climatic zones of Guatemala. We have missed this a bit in Mexico.

A Costa Rican guide explained me some years ago the difference between rain and cloud forest. In the rain forest it rains. In the cloud forest it rains as well. If not, there are clouds. I can only confirm that. Dense clouds enter the forest and darken it even more. Then it starts to pour down. It is very difficult to see anything between the Guaruma and avocado trees, bamboo perennials, the tree ferns, bromeliads and orchids. Finally it is the same to us than to most Guatemalans, even to most people in the world: We have never seen a Quetzal. That doesn’t change after the hike.

The Quetzal reserve is close to the town of Cobán. They took 50 GTQ entrance fee and 20 GTQ for camping pp. There are nice sites for tents, but we don’t even fit in the parking lot since the entrance is too low. Flexible and helpful as the Guatemalans are they open the gate to the staff entrance where we can park in the backyard. Not the prettiest spot, but safely locked and trailhead at the same time. There are many different animals like insects and snakes, so long sleeves and pants plus sturdy shoes are recommended. Some mosquitoes and all horseflies are unimpressed by mosquito repellent. (Quetzal sanctuary Mario Dary Rivera: N 15°12’50.4’’ W 90°13’04.4’’)

Ciudád de Guatemala, Guatemala – Rest

Samstag, August 6th, 2011

Friends are everywhere. On our second day in Guatemala we’ve met a couple that invited us to their home close to Guatemala City. We are glad to be here, to get some glimpses of Guatemala City, of Guatemalan family life and food thanks to Beatriz and Bill.

Volcán Pacaya, Guatemala – Hot volcano

Freitag, August 5th, 2011

After saying good-bye to Petra and Klaus – they return for another six months to Mexico, while we keep on going south – we visit the Tourist Police to receive information about volcano Pacaya. In the last years repeated robberies happened to tourists, but these incidents seem to belong to the past since a guarded national park has been established and the Tourist Police is permanently present. But the helpful officers astonish us while warning us to take the direct route to Pacaya via Santa Maria de Jesús. The road wasn’t safe, armed assaults even to busses happened time and again.

So we take the route through Guatemala City that’s twice as long as the short one. The two-million-capital (including metro) isn’t a tourist magnet but an important traffic junction. In a side road close to the village San Vicente de Pacaya 40 km south of Guatemala City we are stopped at a box office. Foreigners have to pay 50 GTQ entrance fee and we learn that we can’t hike the volcano without guide. The guide takes another 150 Quetzals regardless the size of the group and we have to take him the last 5.5 km narrow dirt road with us in the truck. He shall probably make sure that we don’t hike up too far onto the smoking peak or that we don’t fall in one of the hot crevices. But we can overnight at the trailhead without additional charge.

The guide who must have an official identity card estimates three hours for the hike, but he goes faster if admitted. It is each 3 km and 400 m of elevation for going up and down. Volcano Pacaya, one of the most active ones in Central America, is easy and safe to climb. Eruptions are registered since 1565, recently yearly. The almost reliable wind direction offers protection most of the time. We have to stop at 2,250 m, the last 300 m of elevation to the peak are not accessible. Steam escapes from many holes, the rock are partially hot. The liquid lava is in lower areas around 15 m below surface, in higher elevation only 10 m. A several metres deep crevice gets even closer to the embers. The temperature here is around 900° F / 500° C and our guide is roasting some marshmallows on a stick. Some of the “sauna caves” are accessible as well, and if you didn’t sweat until now you definitely will. (N 14°23’58.1’’ W 90°36’54.9’’)

Antigua, Guatemala – Guatemala’s former capital

Donnerstag, August 4th, 2011

La Antigua Guatemala, „the old Guatemala“ was founded in 1443 and has been the country’s capital for 230 years. It withstood pest epidemics, earthquakes, and ash fall. In the middle of the 18th century 50,000 people lived here. But the devasting earthquake of 1773 completely destroyed the city and the capital was moved to where Guatemala City is still located today. However, Antigua was never abandoned completely and 100 years later the well-directed rebuilding was started, but unfortunately destroyed again by another earthquake in 1976.

Antigua is Guatemala’s neat colonial model town, second large tourist centre besides Lago Atitlán, but not all buildings have been reconstructed. The cathedral was only partially, other churches not rebuilt at all. Palacio de los Capitanes Generales is already aglow with new shine. From here the entire Central America was ruled for 200 years. The Palacio del Noble Ayuntamiento on the opposite side of the green plaza remained mainly undamaged due to its solid method of building. The city where today again 50,000 people live has a manageable size; the surrounding three volcanoes give pretty expression to it. The touristic infrastructure with hotels, shops, cafés, and language and dance schools is perfect.

Antigua, Guatemala – Camping in Antigua

Mittwoch, August 3rd, 2011

Just arrived it’s time to say goodbye to Tessa. In Antigua we re-meet Petra and Klaus who left a day earlier on the parking lot on the opposite side of the bus station. Despite the city’s proximity we are well away from the street and in the middle of green spaces. The guarded and fenced lot costs 50 GTQ each per night and day, this makes 100 GTQ for 24 hours. Contrary to reports of other travellers we found even Parque Ecológico Florencia 10 km outside of Antigua open where camping for 30 GTQ pp is possible. The car park at the tourist police on the other hand isn’t available to camping any more. The guided walks to the hilltop Cerro de la Cruz and to the cemetery accompanied by the police also don’t take part any more, but these routes are regarded as safe. Those who really don’t want to go alone can hire a guide at the tourist information at Parque Central.
Parqueo opposite the bus station, N 14°33’34.7’’ W 90°44’32.0’’