Guatemala and Belize

December 16-31, 2018, with Andrew Chapman

mru 2019-01-28

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We chose Guatemala because neither of us had been there, the climate would be relatively pleasant in winter, and because Guatemala is the center of Mayan civilization.  Also, I’d been taking Spanish lessons, not that I am conversant.  It turned out the weather wasn't as good as the DR or Costa Rica or Sri Lanka, but it beat Boston.  (The highlands of Guatemala get cool (low 50s), albeit dry, and the lowlands of Guatemala and Belize are rainy, albeit warm to hot.)

The trip could not have been simpler.  Having purchased our air tickets, Andrew engaged Mayan-Zone to fill in the two weeks with conventional tourist places and activities, plus a weeklong side trip to Belize.  Almost all transportation and lodgings were arranged for us, so all we had to do was be sure we were packed to go at the right hour.  Here is a map and summary of where we went:



Guatemala is poor and rather dangerous, though not in the tourist corridor.  All the people we met told us it is deeply corrupt from the top down.  The legislature are plutocrats.  The president cooperates and is enriched.  Guatemala has not had a public postal service for more than two years, a clue as to the effectiveness of government.  Coffee, sugar and avocados are major exports.

Belize has much poverty as well, but is better off.  It is pleasantly underpopulated and sleepy, though has the highest population growth rate in Latin America.  Diving and snorkeling are popular.

The biggest experiences we missed was viewing the great Mayan city of Copán across the Guatemalan border in Honduras, and the reef in northern Belize.

Intriguingly, softly worded but rebellious political billboards appear anonymously along the highway in the night.  But no change is coming.  Guatemalans have a high rate of volunteerism to make up for defective government.


Day 1:  Sunday, 2018-12-16:  Boston -> Miami -> Guatemala City -> Antigua

The flight from Boston couldn’t have been easier.  There was a layover in Miami, but the gates were almost adjacent.  Guatemala City is unusual because there are numerous steep canyons.  The carpet of houses cover the high ground and abruptly stop at the edges.

Guatemala City airport is small and easy.  Our contact at Mayan-Zone, Perrine, was waiting with a driver and my name on a placard.  I was tired but my baby Spanish inspired the driver to talk and further wear me down the hour to the hotel in Antigua.

Mesón de Maria (mesón = inn) was reminiscent of a Marrakesh riad, in that it had beautiful old architecture, ancient reddish stone, a large atrium, discreet upper story terraces for sitting and leisure, and a rooftop terrace.

Andrew was delivered by the same driver a few hours later.  Following an interminable walk on the most twisted cobblestones ever devised, we had an outstanding dinner at Casa Santo Domingo, and caught up.  The setting was a most elegant architecture, tables spaced wide apart, open-air ten feet away.  And the food was gourmet.



Guate's "Urban Carpet" shaped by valleys

Guate's urban carpet

Hotel bedroom


Day 2:  Monday, 2018-12-17:  Antigua

Breafasts at Mesón de Maria were my favorite, having eggs, bacon, fruits, cheese, but especially black beans (frijoles) slow-cooked and somehow fluffy like a cake (lard?).

This day we were taken on a foot tour of the city.  Antigua lies near three volcanoes (Agua, Fuego and Acatenango).  The first capital was at Iximche (see below).  Due to Mayan uprisings it was moved to a location near Antigua -- visible in the distance and now used to grow coffee and sugar cane.  It was destroyed by an earthquake’s landslide in 1541.  The capital was moved to Guatemala City; the survivors were coaxed to move to modern Antigua with promises of land and an identical municipal building plan (cathedral, government buildings etc.).

Lunch at a local meat joint (Rincón Típico) and dinner at the wonderful Panza Verde.  The latter means “Green Belly”, referring to people who love avocados.  Andrew was less enchanted than I because we were almost the only customers; it lacked “atmosphere” he said.  However, the food was again gourmet.

My favorite breakfast in Guatemala

Harold & Andrew overlooking Antigua

Mayan woman & arch

Day 3:  Tuesday, 2018-12-18:  Antigua -> Panajachel (on Lake Atitlán): Iximché, Sololá, Hotel Atitlán

This morning we were driven west to Panajachel on Lake Atitlán, at the foot of another volcano (Volcán Atitlán).  En route we looked at the Mayan ruin of Iximché, an impressive landmass- large flat mesa with dropoffs on most sides, but offering merely disappointing mounds of stone.  Much more colorful and lively was the market at Sololá (produce, housewares, fabrics).  The lovely Hotel Atitlán is a tourist attraction for its manicured gardens.

My laptop inexplicably slowed down to molasses.  With much difficulty and patience, I was able to back up its recent data.

Andrew was not happy with the dinner service.  It started with his suspicion about the three or four cheapest wines being mysteriously unavailable.  I was displeased about the timing of the courses.  Ultimately Andrew was put off by the waiter’s disregard for our concerns, which to be charitable might have been due to his not speaking English.  Andrew had the mandatory tip removed from the check.


 Photos from early in the day:

Driving through a town

The dead stones of Iximché

Market at Sololá:

Sololá town square/park:


Odd colorful suburb

The Lovely Hotel Atitlán:

View from hotel window
View from room

Hotel restaurant
Laptop problems
The Tower


Day 4:  Wednesday, 2018-12-19  (Mayan village; transport back to Antigua)

In the morning was a boat across Lake Atitlán to the Mayan village of San Juan de Laguna.  I was taken in hand by a guide, who predictably paraded me to a series of buying opportunities.  I demurred, except for the overpriced coffee shop, but enjoyed the display of medicinal herbs, and especially the cotton cloth fabrication.  (Removing seeds from the cotton balls, spinning thread by hand, especially dyeing and fixing, and finally weaving.)

The boat carried me on to the larger Santiago Atitlán, where there was a little more selling hassle.  Bought a colorful belt.  I hiked up and beyond the tourist strip to see the local shops.  The hardware store prominently exhibited machetes.

Back at the hotel, lunch with Andrew and back to Antigua.  We’d become fond of the driver, Fredy de León, for his interesting conversation.  (He phoned a friend in Antigua to look at my laptop when we returned there, though the friend did not show.)

Dinner at Andrew’s choice this time, Hector’s Bistro.  Andrew was thoroughly satisfied—this place was frequented by locals and was “alive”.  (The roasted tomatoes were to die for, but the duck was disappointing.)


Volcanic Breakfast Vista
Leaving Hotel Atitlán by Boat

Approaching San Juan de Laguna

Dyeing Cotton

Many Natural Dyes Available

Colorful Bug

San Juan Church atop Hill

La Bilia Católica
Approaching Santiago Atitlán

Main Street

Clothing, Bags, Wood Carvings

Collars, blouses
Machetes are prominent tools at hardware store

Traffic to Antigua was heavy
  Click Here for a Movie of the Traffic
Back at the pretty Mesón de Maria

Day 5:  Thursday, 2018-12-20 (Antigua & Pacaya Volcano -> Guatemala City -> Flores)

This was a day of heavy traffic, a volcano, horses, a plane flight, and arrival in the tranquil lowlands.

Fredy picked us up after our usual fine breakfast and drove us to the tiny San Francisco in higher mountains.  There we mounted horses and ascended the steep former volcano facing the active Pacaya volcano.  (Pacaya is a type of palm plant whose heart is eaten.)  Andrew turned back having had a surgery recently.  My guide, and her young son, led me up and up and up, to the caldera of a facing former volcano.  From there we saw Pacaya continuously erupting, emitting a stream of red lava falling down its slope.  Where we were standing was hot enough, just below the surface, to roast marshmallows.

Fredy drove us through agonizing traffic to the capital, where we had an excellent Mayan lunch at a place he knew, Kacao.  Dropped off at the airport, we bid him goodbye, killed some hours, and took a small propeller flight to Flores in the low country north.

A driver took us to our hotel and we eventually had a quiet dinner on the waterfront.

Sticky Seeds for Breakfast

Ascending on Horseback

Mountain Lake

We viewed Pacaya from this adjacent caldera.

A foot beneath the surface the rocks were boiling hot.

This volcano is spewing!
Movie of Lava Shooting down Volcano (keep your expectations low)(You can't see its red color)
Other Volcanoes in Distance

Volcano Guide & Driver Fredy de Leon

The wonderful Restaurant Kacao

Andrew & Fredy at lunch

Flying to Flores

Lobby of Hotel Isla de Flores

Fish dinner

Marie Sharp's Habanero Sauce is Very Common on Tables

Day 6:  Friday, 2018-12-21  (Flores; Tikal)

A half-day tour of Tikal.  Andrew didn’t join me.  For the ca. 70-minute drive the guide talked continuously about Mayan history and I ate it up.

·       It’s not known why the Mayans abandoned their cities, though drought or climate change seems likely.  Tikal, one of the greatest ruins, was abandoned ca. 900 A.D, ~650 years before the Spanish explorers arrived.  The inhabitants went in part to the southern highlands (e.g. Antigua area), the Yucatan and Belize.  In the late 19th century some Americans were visiting the Yucatan and noticed the Mayans chewing on the extract of the chicle tree (whence the brand name Chiclets).  They commercialized chewing gum and employed the Indians to harvest it.  This work required them to work in remote parts of the forest for months at a time.  My guide was proud that it was the local chicladors that discovered Mayan ruins, not Europeans.

·       Without all this background, and explanations of the stone ruins, I would not have enjoyed Tikal.  Instead, it was fascinating.

·       There were three castes or classes:  the poor, the rich, and on top the king and the priests.  The poor people lived outside the city and had no chance of social advancement.  The others shared the palaces, i.e. several families per structure.  However the palaces were little more than bedrooms.  Bedrooms were small (10'x5') rectangular cells with a raised slab for a bed.  Possessions were stored in pits.  Cooking was not done in the cities.  The poor did the cooking and brought the food, along with plates and utensils, into the city.

*    There are (at least) five types of building:  palaces, i.e. dormitories shared among several families, temples (the top of which had a chamber or two for the king to commune with the gods), observatories, ball courts, and altars.  Mayans were polygamous and polytheistic.  Chac, the rain god, was an important one.  Human sacrifice was common, however it was sometimes considered an honor to be sacrificed, because it pleased the gods, who liked blood for some reason.  Occasionally entire families would sacrifice themselves.  Victims were anesthetized, and they believed in reincarnation, so the ritual wasn’t so horrible for them.  It was the winning team at their ball game, not the losing, who were sacrificed, in order to offer the gods the best.  An exception was the meting of justice, where the losers died.

·       The king would climb his temple and occupy a couple of small rooms at the top.  (Temples were otherwise solid, unlike the Egyptians’ pyramids.)  He would take hallucinogenic mushrooms, an anesthetic, and cut himself on the face, ears and penis in order to create blood for the gods.  In return they might send him visions and guidance.

·       Each city had one king.   When he died, another would be appointed and typically a new temple would be built, taking the form of a shell around the previous king’s temple.  (The former temple had good energy.)  Consequently Mayan pyramids lack the interior chambers of Egyptian ones.

·       Each city had an observatory, in order to time plantings and harvests.

·       Perhaps the highlight of my visit to Tikal was ascending Temple #4 to find a group gazing at the jungle and listening to a hippy flutist.  It was December 21, the winter solstice, and a lot of hippies, dressed in colorful (not Mayan) clothing were celebrating.

*    Cisterns to store drinking water were built in the depressed land surrounding the city where quarries had provided the stone.

I made it back in time for a late lunch with Andrew.  He’d explored the small town and encouraged me to do the same.  Which I did.  He announced we would be having dinner at Enrico’s, which I located and also liked.  The notable feature of this cozy little island is that the northeast corner is flooded.  It’s not that the seawall is too low, but that the water is too high – above the level of the sidewalk in parts.

Nice dinner at Enrico’s.

View from hotel room window at dawn

Security checkpoint at Tikal

Foreigners & nationals are charged different amounts.

Proud tree with epiphytes

What animal is this?

Tikal is large and spread out.  This is a typical wide path.

Here's a sense of its extent.  You may have to enlarge!  This is a view from the top of Temple#4.

Temple (rear view)

Dormitory for the rich, aka a palace.


The Grand Plaza

Winter solstice gathering.  Styles line the steps
Temple 4 Side View
Short clip of hippie flute music

Day 7:  Saturday, 2018-12-22:  Florence, Guatemala -> San Ignacio, Belize

In the morning our same driver, Pedro, collected us.  As before, he would not drive his taxi to our hotel, but at the parking lot at the head of the island.  He drove us 90 minutes or so to Yaxha, another Mayan city, where I wandered for a couple of hours.

The border crossing into Belize was quite slow at the Belizean entry part.  On the other end our car took us the modest distance to the border town of San Ignacio, Belize.  (We gave a ride to an American woman who didn’t have time to wait for a taxi.)

San Ignacio was hot, dusty, colorful and vibrant.  Our hotel was the finest thus far, although Hotel Lake Atitlán was up there.  Lunch at the local Sri Lankan restaurant.  Incredibly slow delivery, but tasty.  Dinner at the hotel, where Andrew invited a solitary woman to join us. 


Our driver collected us and drove us east into Belize.  En route we detoured north to Yaxhá park, a large natural space for hiking and in our case, a Mayan city.  The latter is very expansive.  I ambled about for 90 minutes.  Just as I was lost the parking lot appeared.  Without a guide it was impossible to get much out of it.

The Guatemalan border crossing was easy, but Belizean immigration was slow (25 minutes).  A local driver took us fifteen minutes to our elegant hotel in San Ignacio.  For lunch we explored the little town, including the big market, and had a Sri Lankan (!) lunch.  I was surprised to learn that this is one of the largest population centesrs in Belize!

We dined in the hotel restaurant, where Andrew was sympathetic to a solitrary woman diner.  She was pleased to join us, because she was on her honeymoon but her husband had suffered an industrial accident and was in the hospital back home.  We enjoyed her company and dined out again with her the next night.

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Day 8:  Sunday, 2018-12-23  (San Ignacio; caving)

What a fun day!  I was picked up by a van, along with two couples, and driven about 90 minutes to ATM.  We donned life vests and LED headlamps.  After hiking 30-40 minutes through the jungle, and fording / swimming across a few streams, we got to the cave.  It’s 3-5 miles long.  At the start you have to swim, but the water was not cold.  After that it’s just wading or hiking.  Without our lamps it would be pitch black.  After a mile we changed tack.  We took off our shoes and started ascending into a secondary cave.  The Mayans used it for human sacrifice, maybe other things.  There was a lot of broken pottery and a few skulls and skeletons, one intact of a 15-year old boy.  The skulls tended to have been bashed in, reportedly part of the torture the victims (prisoners?) received.  (Quite a different style of human sacrifice from the city.)  Unfortunately no photos were possible on this trip.


One of the funnest activities of the trip.  We were driven 80 minutes to ??? where a guide outfitted us with life vests, helmets and head lanterns.  We walked 30 minutes through the jungle, fording three rivers (one chest deep) until we got to the entrance to the cave.  It’s several miles long.  The first fifty feet had to be swum, but the water is not cold.  After that it’s shallower or plain rock.

After 45 minutes of this, we took off our shoes and ascended into a secondary cavern system used by the Mayans for sacrifices and communing with their gods.

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Day 9:  Monday, 2018-12-24  (San Ignacio -> Hopkins)

In the morning I squeezed in the tour of the iguana preserve, conveniently located on the hotel property.  The large cage housed two males and 15 females.  A third large male was splayed on top of the cage, but if he were given access he would get into fights.  Plus, being healthy, he has no place in the shelter.  The young caretaker rescues or receives injured iguanas and nurses them back to health.  If they become well enough he releases them to the wild.  When they arrive, they bite and use their sharp-toothed tail to attack.  But he swaddles them into eventual submission, and then other humans can handle them safely.  That was more adaptability than I expected from an iguana.  They are endangered, he said, because the eggs are a delicacy and the locals don’t respect the law regarding hunting season.

We were collected and driven to sleepy Hopkins, on the Caribbean coast, and our hotel near the end of the road, a mile from the tiny population center.  The owner of our hotel has a good reputation as a chef.  We enjoyed his good Christmas Eve dinner.

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Days 10-12:  Tuesday, 2018-12-25 – Thursday, 2018-12-27 (Hopkins)

The time disappeared pleasantly in a warm haze.  One morning we rented a golf cart and toured, but there is almost nothing except a few exceptional restaurants, surf (diving if you fancy) and dust.  And a modest library.

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Day 13:  Friday, 2018-12-28:  Hopkins -> Punta Gorda, Belize;  Cockscombe Basin

Andrew had requested a tour of the famous Cockscombe Basin wildlife reserve, somewhat on the way to our next stop of Punta Gorda, so it may not have been coincidence our driver was a licensed guide there.  He made it interesting by showing us a jaguar print, how to get rubber out of a tree, etc.

Punta Gorda is a significant town, but the food is good and filling; you cannot find sophisticated.


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Day 14:  Saturday, 12/29/18 (Punta Gorda):  Cultural Tour

A driver picked me up (?at 9?).  He worked many years saving manatees, though community education and action, but now works for the largest tour company in southern Belize.  We picke dup a young American woman who was driving across Central America by herself.  She fulminated against the teaching profession.  (She enjoyed the 13 hours/week of actual teaching, but the rest of her 80-hour week was high-pressure and combative.)

The first visit was with a Creole drum maker.  I got worried when he talked for 10 minutes about African tribes I couldn’t remember.  But his wife appeared.  I learned of cohune oil and sliced breadfruit was fried.  And we saw the outdoor workshop.  (Everything was rather open to nature.)  He takes pride in using traditional tools to hollow out the tree trunk sections.  He is the founder of “Drums not Guns.”

I was relieved when our driver tore us away.  The next stop, dismayingly, was drums again.  But this was a Garifunan (not Creole), music lesson, taught by a young but famous Belizean musicians.   We learned five patterns, including the basic one for their most popular music (“punta).

The third visit was my favorite, to Maya Experience.  This family maintained their home as Mayans lived fifty years ago.  The large thatched room was adorned with the items of household life: musical instruments (xylophone, guitar, vilin, harp), metate for grinding maize, cacao and spices, a bark bed, a wood bench, an active hearth (whence our tasty chicken lunch)… and of course a husband, wife and children, colorfully dressed.  We toured the plants outdoors – cacao, ginger, lemon grass, avocado, and a tree bearing a leaf like sandpaper (for cleaning dishes).

Our final stop was at an old East Indian woman’s.  When her mother died it was promised that her possessions be preserved.  Thus was a small museum of yesteryear born.  (The median object age was perhaps 80 years.)  Turns out she and our driver shared great grandparents, to their delight.

Andrew had his heart set on a different restaurant on the opposite end of town.  We walked the half hour without incident.


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Day 15:  Sunday, 12/30/18:  Punta Gorda, Belize -> Guatemala City

We left Belize and journeyed most of the day to a hotel near the Guatemala City airport.  Our private boat ride was an hour late, inpart due to absent emigration officials, but eventually we made the hour-long ride to Livingston, Guatemala, a stable pocket of Garifunans.  The town is inaccessible except by boat, so after clearing immigration we reboarded the boat and were treated to the most beautiful Rio Dulce, a gorge surrounded by lush vegetation and birds (white egrets mostly; also black cormorants).  This hourlong trip is one of the best experiences Guatemala offers.

Our car was waiting and we drove 5.5 hours to the hotel.  We were lucky it was Sunday so traffic wasn’t horrible.  En route we had lunch at a vast roadside cafeteria with a small buffet.  Great food, impossibly cheap ($4 for a big plate of things).

The Inmaculada is a fine hotel in the fine hotel district (Zone 10).  For dinner we returned to the picturesque and outstanding Kaoca.  I over-ordered as usual to sample more exotic dishes.  This is why I gained a half-pound a day over the two weeks!

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Day 16:  Monday, 12/31/18:  Guatemala City -> Dallas -> Boston

Up at 4:30 am, taxied to airport.  Flights entirely comfortable.  I’ve realized an advantage of business/first class is your checked bag appears early on the carousel.  Who likes waiting when so close to home?

I honestly declared I was transporting agricultural material, but they were not concerned by my black pepper seeds.

Back home, all was well except my backup NAS had failed.


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·       Mayans, Incans, Aztecs.  Indigenous Indians that prosperred at various times and places in Mexico and Central and South Americas.  They came across the Bering Strait from Asia and migrated south.

·       Creole                 Generic word for a mixture of European and local peoples.

·       Garifuna             Descendants of west African blacks who escaped from a slave ship that shipwrecked on St. Vincent.  They intermarried with Caribs to a greater or lesser extent.  They mostly live in Honduras, also in Belize and the town of Lívingston in Guatemala.

·       Mestizo              Mix of European and indigenous.

·       Confederates    European owners of plantations

·       East Indians       Brought in by the Confederates as middle men in the operation of plantations.

·       Conquistadors  No intro required

·       Criollo people:   Near-pure Spanish blood, not born in Spain.  Peninsulares: Born in Span.


·       Black cormorants (Lívingston)

·       White egrets (all over)

·       Crows

·       Pelicans (Punta Gorda, Lívingston)


·       Etc


·       Cohune palm (Wikipedia), the national tree of Belize.  Its fronds may be the largest leaves in the world and are used for roofing thatched houses.  Its oil has a prized flavor, but is rare because it is difficult to extract.

·       Chicle tree

·       Palms, including coconut trees

·       Plantains

·       Eucalyptus around Antigua

·       Other deciduous trees

·       Leaves, both very soft and others like sandpaper used for cleaning pots


·       Recado paste is a red paste used to marinate or flavor.  (Wikipedia)

·       Cohune oil


Southern Guatemala, including the capital, is mountainous with volcanoes.  It is cooler but drier than the north, at least in winter.  The north (Petén province) is warmer but wetter.  We found the Belize coast to be warm to very warm with occasional brief downpours.  Very humid.


·       Metate [pg. 313]  (Lava) stone basin & roller for grinding maize, cacao and spices