Guatermala, Hondurus, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica

A Whistle Stop Tour of Central America

December 2011

Central America is a wonderfully diverse part of the world, consisting of a narrow isthmus of land that connects the large land masses of North and South America. Constricted between the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean it comprises of seven countries - each with its own individual character. It is a land of mystery, rich in legends of ancient civilizations. It is also blessed with a wealth of natural diversity and an abundance of exotic wildlife. Brooding volcanoes pepper the landscape and colonial cities sit side by side with ancient Mayan temples and pyramids. This is the land that drew the Spanish Conquistadors across the vast Atlantic Ocean in search of ‘rivers of gold’. A journey through Central America is to interact with a culture and a people that will proffer a truly enriching experience.

 

A Brief History

 

The current prevailing theory dates the first inhabitants of Central America to around 20,000 years ago. They crossed the land bridge across the Baring Strait from Russia to Alaska and then migrated down through the Americas. Initially hunter-gatherers, once their traditional sources of food became scarce, they turned to agriculture and the domestication of animals. Further advancements in agricultural techniques, allied with an increase in the population, gave rise to the immergence of the early advanced civilizations in the region.

 

The largest of the New World’s three biggest pre-Columbian civilizations were the Mayans (the others were the Aztecs and the Incas). Archaeological evidence points to the birth of the Mayan nation in the region of 2000 BC. They reached the zenith of their power around 750 AD, at which time they controlled an empire encompassing much of present-day southern Mexico, Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

 

The Mayans used hieroglyphs to record important events such as victorious battles, religious beliefs and mapping planetary movements - they also developed their own calendar. The so-called Long Count Calendar was based on a recurring time cycle of 5,125 years. It was calculated in conjunction with Mayan mythology, the sacred sites and the precession movements of the planets. The current cycle, the 12th, is due to end on the 21st December 2012. This date has given rise to speculative frenzy amongst certain doomsday prophets and New Age astrologers about the earth’s demise or the supposed apocalyptic end of days.

The Mayans built magnificent stone cities enclosing populations of up to 200,000 people: bigger than many contemporary large European cities of the same period. Cities such as Palenque, Uxmal, Tikal and Copan flourished, whilst religious sites saw ornate pyramids reaching skywards affording a stairway to the gods.

 

By the time the Spanish Conquistadors arrived at the beginning of the 16th century the Mayan civilization had already been in a state of atrophy for some considerable time. Many of the once magnificent cities were abandoned and subsequently re-claimed by the jungle.

 

Christopher Columbus arrived in Central America in 1502. The Spanish mercenaries that followed came to plunder the riches of the region, primarily the rumoured ‘rivers of gold’.  The first Spanish settlement in Central America was founded in 1509 in Panama and it was from this base in 1519 that Pedro Arias de Avila commenced his bloody campaign of conquest, fighting his way north through Central America. In the same year Hernan Cortez, after landing in Mexico, began fighting his way south through Guatemala and El Salvador. Whilst falling prey to the superior weaponry and tactical expertise of the Spanish, many hundreds of thousands of the indigenous people also fell victim to the diseases introduced by the conquering Spanish, to which they had no immunity.

After approximately 300 years of colonial rule, in 1821 the Americas finally wrestled free of Spanish control and declared their independence. The journey down this road would be a rocky one; there would be civil wars, wars against each other, military dictatorships and coups, alongside overt and covert intervention by the USA. Through the 1970’s and 1980’s the sovereign independence of these small Central American states was restricted by their powerful northern neighbour the USA. Gun boat diplomacy and the power of the dollar were invoked to heavily influence the political makeup of these small countries. The early 1980’s saw the two Cold War protagonists;  the USA who backed the incumbent Somoza dictatorship and the Soviet Union who backed the rebel Sandinistas. They both poured military hardware into Nicaragua in what became known as the Contra War.

 

Fast forward to the present time, like many immerging third world countries today, the Central American states face the ubiquitous battles against general crime, drugs and corruption; the road to political and economic stability is never going to be an easy one.

The Journey

 

This exciting journey begins with a long flight from London to Guatemala City - the capital of Guatemala. This Central American country has a literacy rate of 69%, mainly due to the fact that education is not provided free. Poverty is endemic, as 56% of the population exist on $2 a day or less.

 

Out on the road to Chichcastenango (Chichi for short) is the home to the biggest market in Central America. There’s been a market there for over 3,000 years and it’s a magnet for locals and tourists. Famous for its textiles and carved wooden masks in particular, the market area exudes a vibrant and highly colourful ambience. Shamanistic overtones permeate the atmosphere, particularly around the Iglesia De Santos Tomas Church, where Christian rituals blend seamlessly with local Mayan customs. Commonplace inside the church you’ll find offerings of incense, flowers, food, cigarettes and liquor. Despite the groups of camera-toting tourists Chichi manages to maintain a timeless and magical quality.

 

Situated on the shore of Lake Atitlan, Panajachel is a busy bustling tourist destination. A former Spanish settlement Panajachel is the region’s most popular tourist destination, replete with galleries, handicraft shops and cafes. Lake Atitlan lays claim to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world; formed from the caldera of an extinct volcano. It’s clear azure blue waters and surrounding three picture-postcard volcanoes, towering up to 3,000 metres, make it a photographer’s dream setting.

Take a boat trip across the lake and on the far shore you’ll find the village of Santiago Atitlan. The reason for travelling to this small village is to visit the home of the local mayor. Inside his house is a wooden effigy of the revered god Maximon. The figure is draped in colourful silk scarves, wears a cowboy hat and smokes a big fat cigar. Offerings of cigarettes, alcohol and money surround the deity. Gaudy coloured flashing ‘Christmas style’ lights adorn the room, along with offerings of food. effigies of Jesus and a selection of the Christian saints. The atmosphere is a heady mixture of spiritual, shamanistic and demonic. Guatemalans travel long distances to visit Maximon in order to present offerings and ask for blessings for future health, wealth and happiness.

 

Here in Guatemala chicken buses rule the roads, these highly ornate vehicles provide their passengers with a white-knuckle ride as they travel across the country at breakneck speed. The bus drivers are remunerated for the number of passengers they carry and the number of trips they complete per day. Needless to say, as far as the rules of the road go, these buses do not take any prisoners.

 

It’s a three-hour drive from Lake Atitlan to Guatemala’s showpiece city of Antigua. Founded in 1543 it was the colonial capital for 233 years, until it was razed to the ground by an earthquake in 1776. Renovated over the years and now designated a Unesco World Heritage site, Antigua boasts an abundance of aesthetically pleasing old colonial buildings set along cobbled streets you’ll find numerous elaborate colonial churches, making it one of the most charming and picturesque cities in Central America. Antigua’s streetscape of handsomely proportioned pastel coloured houses with their panoply of undulating terracotta tiled roofs, are set in a valley against a backdrop of three volcanoes towering up to almost 4,000 metres. Founded in 1542, Antigua’s most notable building is the specious Catedral de Santiago. Damaged by earthquakes and subsequently renovated periodically at various times through the years, it displays a wonderful baroque facade dating from the mid 19th century.

 

Cross over the border into Honduras. It lays claim to the sad accolade of having the highest murder rate in the world. Like its neighbour Guatemala, poverty is a major social problem here with 60% of the population living on $2 a day or less.

 

A visit to the ancient Mayan ruins at Copan just over the border in Honduras was always going to be the highlight of this trip and it did not disappoint me. The ancient Mayan complex at Copan is believed to have been founded around 426 AD by King Great Sun Lord Quetzal Macaw. Copan’s heyday was during the rule of King Smoke Jaguar (628-695), it was in this period that many of the city’s magnificent monuments and temples were constructed. Smoke Jaguar’s successor was the wonderfully named King 18 Rabbit (695-738). Many of the intricately sculptured stelae at Copan date to his reign. The death of King 18 Rabbit in 738 marked the end of Copan’s golden period. Successive rulers continued to build important monuments at Copan, but the city was clearly now passé and by the mid 9th century Copan had become mysteriously abandoned and deserted.

Copan is an eclectic mix of renovated and tumbled down structures, the egregious remains of thousands of structures await excavation in the area surrounding the main site. There are pyramids, step platforms, a ball court, elaborately carved stelae and many temples all sited around a series of plazas. The Great Plaza contains a wealth of intricately carved stelae portraying the rulers of Copan; they represent the zenith of the sculptural expertise of the Mayan nation. The undoubted showpiece of Copan is the magnificent Hieroglyphic Stairway, constructed during the reign of King 18 Rabbit. The flight of 63 steps displays a chronological history of the dynasty of Copan in a series of several thousand glyphs. The stairway is the repository for the longest pre-Columbian indigenous inscription anywhere in the world. For the Mayan people, this monument represented a ‘stairway to heaven’, through which they could ascend up to the gods. Our official tour guide wryly advised us that this ‘stairway to heaven’ was nothing to do with Led Zeppelin!

 

Copan’s on-site museum houses some exquisite sculptures and carvings found during the excavation of the site. There’s also a full scale replica of the Rosalila Temple. The original dedicated in 571 AD by King Moon Jaguar, lies buried at Copan beneath a temple of a later period.

There has been much speculation around the Mayan blood-letting rituals and their use of human sacrifice. These rituals would be performed under the influence of hallucinogenic substances such as angels trumpet, magic mushrooms and mescalin, which would then be mixed with drinking chocolate. Thus imbibed they would then shape-shift or transmorph into different forms in order to become immune from the pain they were inflicting on themselves and also removed from the conscious state of the death rituals they were performing on others.

 

Returning back over the border into Guatemala, swiftly followed by another border crossing, we entered into El Salvador. Here, they have a serious gang-culture problem, operating in drugs, extortion and human trafficking. Like the other countries in the region a large proportion of the population (nearly half) exists on less than $2 per day. This is Central America’s smallest and most densely populated country whilst attracting the fewest foreign tourists of any of its neighbours. Our first stop in El Salvador was the small market town of La Palma. The town’s main attractions are the vibrantly painted murals that adorn many of the houses, walls and lampposts. The vividly coloured child-like murals are the brainchild of the artist Fernando Llort, who moved to the town in 1972. A large industry in reproducing copies of these florid murals flourishes in La Palma; the artwork is exported to many countries around the world. One of El Savador’s most charming colonial towns is Suchitoto.

Suchitoto is a charming colonial town of cobbled streets and pretty bijou houses and like much of El Salvador untroubled by mass tourism. Suchitoto is endowed with wonderful galleries that present endless retail exploration and some of the best restaurants encountered on the entire trip.

 

Another day and another border crossing as we head back into Honduras. At this crossing, a certain amount of ‘greasing of palms’ is required in order to expedite a smooth passage through the system. Corruption is endemic in Honduras; recently over 400 police were arrested on charges of corruption, extortion and murder and the arrests included the Chief of Police.

 

The almost unpronounceable Tegucigalpa was founded by the Spanish in 1578 and it has been the country’s capital since the 1880’s. Nestling in a valley surrounded by a ring of pine–covered mountains, this idyllic setting belies the underlying sense of deprivation, poverty and crime that pervades the city. A brief stroll, including visits to the main square and a couple of 18th century churches, is all that delays us here. Tegucigalpa is one of those inimical environments where you would not want to venture out on a dark evening. To add to the city’s woes, it has the dubious distinction of having the second most dangerous airport in the world for aircraft landings.

 

The fourth country on this ‘whistle stop tour’ is Nicaragua which is a poor ‘relation’ in this region. A staggering 80% of the population live on that previously mentioned $2 a day or less. The seminal debate about building a canal in Central America originally surfaced in Nicaragua. The large Lake Nicaragua that punctuates the landscape and a river leading out into the Atlantic, made the country seem a natural choice. Through various intrigues and machinations the canal was eventually built in Panama, with the USA controlling the construction contract as well as gaining untrammelled sovereignty rights over the canals usage. Today Nicaragua is the poorest country in the region and Panama is the richest. The average fee to navigate a ship through the canal is $45,000, larger container vessels can pay anything up to $200,000.

 

The city of Leon is one of Nicaragua’s colonial jewels. Founded in 1524 it was the country’s capital for most of the colonial period. Leon is full of magnificent 18th century colonial churches; the most impressive being La Catedral de Leon on the main square. Construction of this building commenced in 1747, continued for over 100 years, and is the largest cathedral in Central America - an imposing baroque structure whose grandeur is amplified by the open space of the park area in front of it. The interior of the building is an admixture of late gothic and neoclassic architecture. The real feature of this building is revealed during a roof-top tour, where a conglomerate of towers and domes that make up the roof structure are an adventure in themselves. The spectacular vista over the city’s terracotta tile roofscape leads the viewer’s eye inevitably to the string of volcanoes that dominate the skyline. The city’s ‘Square of the Heroes and Martyrs’ contains a vibrant mural depicting the pivotal moments of Nicaraguan history. From the time of the Maya, the Spanish conquest, the civil war years and a visualised utopian future, it is a graphic portrayal full of subliminal symbolism.

 

Nicaragua’s capital city of Managua is sadly a rather grim and vacuous place - a shadow of its former self.  The old historic centre that was once the showpiece of the city, had its heart ripped out in 1972 by an earthquake which flattened most of the residential buildings and left the majority of the historic centre an eerie sector of monuments and ruined buildings. Financial restraints have meant that rebuilding has failed to take place ever since. The one- time population of the city centre migrated to the suburbs leaving the centre much of a ghost town. The Plaza de la Revolucion denotes the former centre of Managua and here is situated its most emotive ruin, the Antigua Catedral. The impressive shell of this neo-classical structure, built in 1929, is now in a completely unstable condition with no future prospect of repair - it sadly awaits an inevitable collapse. The clock on its tower still remains motionless at the hour the earthquake struck in 1972.

 

The Masaya National Volcano Park was described by the colonial Spanish as the gates of hell. The craters within the boundaries of the national park afford the visitor a rare chance to get up real close and personal with mother-nature. The park encompasses two volcanoes which together have five craters - the most active of these is the Santiago Crater. Climbing up to the rim you can look right into the heart of this enormous crater as it continuously belches out sulphurous fumes. The surrounding landscape displays the evidence of numerous previous eruptions with large areas of solidified lava flows; a somewhat apocalyptic lunar landscape. The on-site visitors centre genuinely enhances the individual’s overall experience and a more perspicacious appreciation of the site. Crammed full of information such as how volcanoes are formed, the structure of the earth’s tectonic plates and different types of eruptions, it’s an easy to digest educational experience.

A short drive away is Granada. Atmospheric Granada is the second of Nicaragua’s so-called ‘colonial jewels’. Founded in 1524 by the conquistador Hernandez de Cordoba, it’s Nicaragua’s oldest colonial city. The city is far grander than its sister city Leon and better preserved architecturally. It’s also cleaner and better endowed with shops and restaurants - on the downside, it’s touristic. The sympathetically restored colonial architecture, elegant churches and its location on the shore of Lake Nicaragua, make Granada well worth a visit. The resplendent Convento e Iglesia de San Francisco was rebuilt in 1867 on the site of a previously destroyed church. Its stone facade glows either a pale dapple yellow or a striking blue, depending on the time of day. The convent houses a sumptuous mural depicting the Spanish conquest. The Iglesia de la Merced is indubitably Granada’s most beautiful church. Completed in 1539, its baroque facade and elaborate interior are an utter delight. For a small fee, a climb to the top of the bell tower affords a breathtaking view of the city and the surrounding area. At street level, the beautifully restored pastel-coloured colonial houses make a stroll through the city a photographer’s paradise.

The beach resort of San Juan del Sur is Nicaragua’s version of the Benidorm or Marbella experience. It’s full of beach-bums, surfing dudes and rich Costa Ricans who have driven over the border in their massive 4x4 SUV’s. This resort has ‘chill out’ written all over it. San Juan exudes an affluence that is in antitheses to the rest of the country, prices are consequently far higher here than elsewhere in Nicaragua. The large tour ships that cruise the region disgorge thousands of passengers here for the day before heading off to their next port of call; San Juan owes its entire existence to tourism - which has long replaced fishing as the town’s ‘raison d’être’. For many of the countries in this region this populist resort is seen as a paradigm of how to attract the lucrative tourist revenue that would bolster their economy. Lying in a hammock, with a cool drink in hand, watching the sunset on the Pacific Ocean is an ephemeral antidote to the stresses of the hard days on the road of the tour.

After another border crossing and another currency change, we arrive in Costa Rica - the final country on this whistle stop tour. Costa Rica is a wealthy relation amongst its Central American neighbours, the average wage being $700 per month compared with $100 per month in the other countries visited so far. The major source of revenue is the country’s highly developed eco-tourism industry, attracting over 1.5 million visitors annually. It’s the greenest country on the planet and contains the greatest density of wildlife species, ranging from howler monkeys to toucans. Our hotel was situated in the middle of a rainforest and the accommodation can only be described as ‘luxury tree houses’ with all the amenities enclosed within a large chalet-style tent. The location is idyllic and for wildlife junkies this is the ultimate destination. From the balcony of your luxury ‘tent suite’ you can indulge in some bird watching, listen to the howler monkeys or just relax and read a book as time just ever so slowly drifts by.

 

Costa Rica’s capital city of San Jose was founded in 1737. It’s generally a mixture of cosmopolitan and commercial with very little of the colonial past still remaining. Like a number of the capital cities encountered on this trip, San Jose is not the safest for taking a solitary walk or for venturing out in the evening alone. Due to the endemic crime problem, the main square with its churches and monuments is constantly patrolled by tourist police. A ‘beauty’ in this somewhat drab and jejune city is a bronze statue of John Lennon sitting on a bench opposite the main cathedral. It brings a smile to the face and encourages you to sit down next to him and have your picture taken … Imagine!

 

An Overview

Overall Central America is a magnificent destination to explore, steeped in fascinating history, ancient monuments, the friendliest of people and mouth-watering cuisine. Each country visited has its own distinct culture and identity and offers something different to the discerning traveller. Irrefutably the highlight of my peregrinations through Central America was a visit to the intoxicating Mayan complex of Copan in Honduras; this was the reason for my choosing this destination and it well and truly exceeded any of my prior expectations. There were of course many other encounters on this journey that made this a truly memorable experience. In terms of indulging my passion for photography, Central America is a target rich environment where photo opportunities are legion.

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