Santa Ana

Santa Ana is the second largest town in El Salvador. It has a very nice little hostel that we kept coming back to called Casa Verde. It also has a quaint little old town, including an abandoned art school. We did try to inquire why the school was abandoned but people stayed so consistently vague, that we still don’t know the answer. To the best of our understanding the reason it was abandoned is the weather, which begs the question why the rest of the city around it seems to have survived quite well.


The building itself is great to visit however, it has an eery but positive vibe to it, with some art here and there hinting at its old purpose. The rest of the older buildings unfortunately ended up randomly being closed every time we tried to visit. Before 1pm the theater would only open at 2pm. At 2pm we learned that the theater was closed that day and would reopen the next day. The next day, the theater should’ve technically been open, but since there was an event going on we couldn’t go in.. and that’s when we decided that maybe the theater just wasn’t meant to be visited by us.


We did however make it to the Tazumal ruins while they were open. The ruins themselves are quite depressing, as they’ve been covered in concrete, then had it partially removed. The entire concept confused us quite a bit. Tazumal’s saving grace is the little on site museum with artifacts found on the location including local legends surrounding them. They had some lovely artifacts from the crying warrior to some ballsy apes dancing on a cup.

Since we spent so much time there, we ended up getting to know the town and the people in that area. This led to one of the more unique experiences we had on this trip. One of the players of the Santa Ana basketball team was living in our hostel and invited us to a game. Us being four girls that had hardly even heard of basketball. We did know that the ball has to go through the hoop and that was about it. Therefore, we were able to root for our team completely unburdened by rules or objectivity. Any foul supposedly committed by ‘our’ team was clearly a gross error in judgment while all fouls committed by the opponents were clearly a good call by the referees. But the fun didn’t end there, when they called the second half time (and we almost left because we thought the game was over), the kids took over the ball field, meaning any boy or girl between the age of 2 and 18 in the audience ran down with their own ball and starting shooting wildly at the hoops. The official basketball players remained on the field to practice as well, shooting their own hoops and occasionally fighting with a kid for the ball . It was a merry get together with about twenty balls flying in all directions. The afternoon ended perfectly with our acquaintance winning the match by a significant margin and being named player of the match. Overall a great experience and I’d definitely be willing to repeat. Maybe with someone that can explain why the referees keep interrupting the game.


Another, rather improvised activity was our pupusa cooking class. We’ve seriously fallen in love with El Salvador’s culinary pride, the pupusa. So much so, that I’ve been telling people I’ll open a pupusa food-truck once I’m back home. To be able to open a pupusa food truck, I need to be able to make them too. So we asked the lady of one of the local restaurants if she’d be willing to give us a class, to which she happily agreed. From this class we mostly learned that not everything that looks easy, actually is easy and that getting the pupusas to be round, thin and have an evenly distributed filling is basically impossible. But we can’t have been too bad, because we did end up filling a couple of orders for local customers. I sincerely apologize to anyone who may have gotten our kinda square, not very well formed pupusas. I hope they still tasted good! If not, don’t blame us, we didn’t make the filling! 😉p2017_10_03_16h30_22

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Cueva Candelaria

Another day trip we did from Coban was the Cueva Candelaria. Part of the largest cave-system in Guatemala it is just one of many entries to a 22km-long system of lava-tunnels. We arrived there in the early afternoon and immediately got a ‘private guide’ assigned to us. A teenage girl from the neighbouring village that was at the same time embarrassed and proud to be guiding us. From the very universal language of the middle finger and the giggling girls it was aimed at, we grasped that the girls we crossed on the way to the cave are probably her friends even if she didn’t like them very much at that moment.


However she did take the tour seriously and walked us through the gigantic cave with its openings pointing out lots of interesting rock formations, stalactites and stalagmites.

The tour lasted a good two hours and every time I was sure we were headed back towards the entrance she found another detour and another little cave with interesting tidbits to show. We saw stalagmites in shape of broccoli, mushrooms and curtains. We visited musical stalactites, gigantic stalactites and one over-dimensional elephant stalagmite.


We saw the river flowing below us and the huge windows opening up, almost glowing green. When we finally headed back out, another adventure awaited us. We were going to float through the caves on tubes. We quickly changed into swimming gear, wrapped our things in plastic bags and off we were, with our tough little tour guide paddling at the front.. She did seem eager for the tour to be over. The floating was pretty cool though and I would’ve liked to go a bit slower, but since the river was running quite slowly we still had time to have a good look around. We did hit the walls a number of times because we couldn’t quite see where we were headed and then, suddenly it was all over and time to get back out of the water.

Laguna Lachua

From Semuc Champey we continued on to Cobàn. The city itself is nothing to write home about, although we must say that it sports a surprising density of absolutely delicious restaurants. The entire area is known for food and drinks, Guatemalas best coffee, cardamon and (only) tea is grown there. From Coban a lot of 1-2 day trips can be planned. One of them leads to Laguna Lachua, a small circular lake particularly popular as a week-end outing for the locals. We met a couple of tourists that were appalled to see that we’d somehow heard of this hidden gem as well.. They were even more disappointed to hear that it was actually listed in our guide book and not as secret a location as they’d thought it to be. However their fears were unfounded. The place was far from overrun. Actually it was just the four of us and the local guard in a very authentic setting. There was no electricity, no hot water and a wood-stove to cook on. We’d read up on the basicness of the place before hand and had planned to only make sandwiches. However the resident guard was already firing up the oven, so we decided to toast our bread and get some warm drinks. It was absolutely perfect.

He saw himself more as a host than a guard, I think. Because he definitely tried very hard to make our stay there as comfortable as possible lighting the fire and providing candle light for our dinner. Unfortuntaly he had run out of candles, so he wasn’t able to give us one for our room. He also trying very hard to stay up as long as we did…  (We were in bed by 9pm) But he did fall asleep at the table after a while. Possibly also because he’d happily accepted the glass of (forbidden) wine, we’d offered him earlier. A tip we’d found on the internet, saying that the guards would appreciate a little gift of some chocolate or sweets.. Which he definitely did!


The lake itself is absolutely beautiful, turquoise water, surrounded by jungle. A little pier to jump from and thousands of fish (with very sharp teeth which they’ll use to turn your leg into dinner, if you stand still for too long) swimming just next to it.

The main activity, of course, was swimming.. Or well.. maybe it was picture taking. We ended up taking tons of pictures both at the lake and on the way there as we ran into plenty of wildlife, including snakes.. But also butterflies, insects, frogs and iguanas. When we arrived at the lake, we showed off our pictures to the local guard, especially the bright green snake, which he happily confirmed to be “very poisonous” with a big smile on his face. We were just happy that the snake ended up being more scared of us than we were of it.

Caye Caulker

So, we spent seven days in Belize and managed to take about 10 photos… in total. That might be a record. I personally think that we just absorbed the motto of Caye Caulker, a smallish island situated near the barrier reef which aligns with the Belizean coastline. Caye Caulker greets its visitors with its „GO SLOW“ mentality. Strangers on the street will remind you to take your time if you look like you’re in a hurry to go somewhere. So, we just went with it. Don’t get me wrong, people are laid-back here, but still very productive, especially in the morning. This might be the reason, why we didn’t really understand, how people stay in business around here. We just overslept the busy hours.

Initially, our plan was to go snorkeling and diving and more, but Belize is rather expensive with usual daytrip prices ranging around 100 US Dollars per person. We decided to skip the diving and just do a snorkeling trip instead. We even missed out on flying over the Blue Hole (200 US Dollars).

The second evening in Caye Caulker, some people at the hostel organized a giant cook-out with lobsters and red snapper, potatoes, self-made garlic bread, lobster ceviche and and and… the list goes on forever. Everyone was pitching in and helping. It lead to a great meal and a great way to get to know newcomers or people, we hadn’t spoken to yet. Oh and roasted coconut is pretty amazing.

 

The next morning was the day of the snorkeling trip. This time, we prepared ourselves (or almost). The tour operator actually had prescription swim glasses and we organized a GoPro from some very nice Germans at our hostel. Sadly, having a GoPro does not automatically mean that one knows how to operate or even how to charge it. This led to a very disappointing 10 seconds trial video on board of the boat before the battery died.

At that point, we just boldly asked everyone on the boat, if we could have their footage afterwards. That led to quite a chase after the trip, meeting up at different hostels and hotels all over the island. We got a lot of photos and little movies to remember our snorkeling adventure.

 

Since it was slow season, it was quite hard to organize trips to the atolls which is why we opted for a whole day trip closer by. Four and a half hours in the water at five different locations. First we went to the National Park to get a first impression of the under(water)world. Loads of different corals, little bright fish, morray eels and a first giant sting ray were rather unimpressed by our presence. Everyone would get the chance to see some sting rays and sharks at Sting Ray and Shark Alley, our second stop. We were warned by a few fellow travellers that this stop might be overrun by tourists, but it being the slow season, we only saw a few boats in the distance.

 

 

Sting rays were floating only a few meters below us and harmless nurse sharks were forming a big bulk at the other side of the boat, where the tour guides were throwing in chum.

 

 

And then, the chase after a sea turtle started. Contrary to their land counterparts they are quite fast. After the guides spotted one, everyone went as quietly into the water as possible. Three of our group started following it quite fast which is why I only saw it in the distance, when I finally made it into the water. The sea turtle might have felt my disappointment and made a full circle, swimming directly at me. Looking down, when it dove right under me, I realised that I was swimming through a gigantic mass grave of conches. It was eerily beautiful and is still haunting me. At the hostel, a few fellow travellers told us that this mass grave was man made, disgarding of all the shells after eating the animals within. That knowledge somehow diminishes this experience, so I chose not to believe it.

 

After making sure, everyone saw the turtle, we went on to seek out a manatee. After seeing two quite unhappy manatees in a Berlin Zoo in very small quarters with dirty water, my sister was not really looking forward to meet them in the open water, reminding her of the unhappy ones in Berlin. It turns out, manatees like muddy water and just look unhappy, regardless of their environment. Also, they just don’t move much in general, so maybe those quarters were big enough after all.

This manatee was also very unimpressed by us, floating in the same spot for half an hour, just surfacing to get some air. We must have looked the very same way to the manatee, just floating there, not even going up for air.

 

Back on the boat, two fellow snorkellers and I were trying to find a way to describe the weird fish we saw to the tour guide, who then hopefully could tell us, what it was. The others were sure, it was a shoe sole fish, sporting a weird shoe-sole-like platform on its head. I opted for a fish with ears. And the guide knew right away, what I was talking about, a sucker shark. It swims on its back which makes its lower fins look like weird elf-like ears.

 

Our last stop in the water was at a giant shipwreck from the 50ies or 80ies or an old pirate ship full of treasure.. everybody heard something else, the metal lining does however exclude the pirate ship theory, much to the dismay of the young kid on our tour. The wreck was full of corals and fish hiding and swimming through it.

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Our day ended at a sea horse kindergarden, were you could (not) see little sea horses hidden away in a ‘sanctuary’ full of ropes and nets.

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Apart from that snorkeling trip, the rest of the time on Caye Caulker was spent drinking coffee, enjoying the view.

Tikal

One of the very first Maya ruin we agreed we’d visit was Tikal. It is supposed to be one of the biggest, heighest, largest, bestest sites and we both had fond memories of playing the board game Tikal together. A game where you play a group of explorers that searches for pyramids and artefacts. The longer we thought about it, the more accurate the game seemed to us. You don’t see anything while walking through the jungle and have to just hope to stumble upon the next temple. The temples are excavated in layers, just like the Mayas built their temples in layers. The only minor inconsistency is that the highest pyramids in the board game have ten stories, while everyone knows that Mayan temples only have nine levels (same as the underworld in their beliefs).

We had been warned about a lot of things for Tikal: It’s gonna be overrun by tourists, it will be way too hot, it’s too large you’ll get lost, the weather is too bad, you won’t see the sunrise and so on. People recommended us to leave at 4:30 for the sunrise, skip the sunrise and enjoy the ruins while you still could.. Unfortunately that didn’t quite align with our natural laziness and we, instead, to take the 9:00am bus. And it was absolutely fine, I don’t know if we got very lucky or if it’s just not as full but we barely saw a handful of people in the ruins and it didn’t really get hot either as the sky was quite covered.


Tikal, as a big tourist attraction, is unfortunately also rather inapproachable. Out of the 10000 buildings of Tikal, about 350 have been excavated, two of which can be accessed by tourists. One of these two is the highest pyramid in Tikal with about 66m in height and allows a view onto all of Tikal.. if it wasn’t for the forest. Barely three of the thousands of temples manage to have their roof comb peak through the canopy of the forest. It was built by Yik’in around 750AD. He also built or changed almost everything else in the city. He is credited with modifying the city layout in such a way, that it actually became defensible and the city was never conquered after these changes. That being said, the last stelae was erected in 869 and the city abandoned before the tenth century so there wasn’t all that much time in which they could’ve been conquered left either.


Yik’in’s tomb remains a bit of a mystery with our tour guide books basically offering three opinions on where and why he’s buried. His tomb remains undiscovered to this day, but there are apparently archaeologists digging into this, highest, pyramid to find his tomb.. Which might prove completely fruitless if the tomb is actually in a tiny, unfinished, unimportant pyramid on the grand plaza, as my guide book claimed.
The grand plaza was truly amazing to see and hosts the second accessible pyramid from which you can have a bird’s eye view of the remaining pyramids. The northern part of the plaza is covered in small pyramids since, apparently, every king wanted to be buried there. This lead to numerous problems and ‘extensions’ to create room.. which, I think, overwhelmed also the archaeologists at time. At least that’s the only way I can explain names like “Temple 33-d5”.

There were two more plazas that we found interesting the first was the plaza of the seven temples, which, well, has seven temples on one side and, fascinatingly enough three parallel ball game setups on the other side. Each of these is aligned with a temple entrance on the opposite side.. While one seems to know a lot about the layout of the place, not a lot is known about the use.
The other place is called “lost world” and while I kind of expected dinosaurs to walk around, the place is not quite *that* old. The center is an astronomical pyramid built over the earliest version from 500BC. The current version must date back to somewhere around 400AD and apparently holds typical symbols from the Teotihuacan from central Mexico. We looked, but couldn’t really find these ‘obvious’ signs.

 

After so many nice plazas we decided that we should also stop at the East plaza even though it wasn’t on any of the official walk-throughs.. Well.. it turns out that’s for a reason. We saw one wall and decided that couldn’t be all of it and kept on moving. When we reached a sign saying “Group F” without any visible ruins at all, we admitted defeat.. I guess there was a reason this was not on the recommended walk-through of Tikal.

Uxmal – Merida

The next day we decided to go to Uxmal, another Maya ruin close to Yucatan’s capital Merida. It has slightly less visitors and the little guide book we bought describes it as the most beautiful ruin city in Yucatan. The little book did like to use a lot of superlatives. To quote “It possesses some of the best examples of Classic architecture. […] A few of these monuments have been skilfully reconstructed by expert archaeologists to […] how they looked in their day of glory.” It did however contain a lot of useful information about the ruins itself and their history and was a great buy. Unfortunately it hasn’t been reworked in a while, so it ended up being quite a teaser, describing in exhaustive detail the amazing things to be observed inside the pyramid of the Magician, which is no longer accessible to tourists. The pyramid of the Magician remains an interesting building as it is the only pyramid with rounded corners.

The next stop was the nunnery. Mayan nunneries are like khmer liberaries: Nobody knows what the use of the buildings were and they just picked a word and stuck with it. Therefore any Mayan building with a larger number of rooms is called a nunnery. In this particular case there were four such buildings arranged around a square with absolutely stupendous and well preserved decorations on every front.

The little booklet helped us understand that while these buildings are typical Puuc style, some foreign elements were introduced later. The decorations included the traditional references to the rain god with it’s elephant-nose, geometric decorations and some minor figurines. Later on, after the cult of the feathered serpent reached also Uxmal, some things were added to the Puuc decorations, like a big serpent or, apparently the “sexual features” on some of the figures which are not Maya.

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The book went also into details on how to separate the two different Maya building styles present in Uxmal: Chenes and Puuc, but to be perfectly honest we were not quite able to make out the difference. The only ‘pure’ Chenes building we saw in Uxmal was the entrance door on top of the Pyramid of the magician. Maybe some of it wa also lost in translation.. The Puuc style completely covered the building in decorations while the Chenes style adorned the building in decorations entirely.. We weren’t quite sure where the difference is. In either case oth were very pretty and often they were mixed in the same building, which didn’t facilitate the differentiation.

From the nunnery we walked out to see the standard buildings that seem to exist in almost every Mayan ruin: The mandatory ball court, the second pyramid, the emperor’s palace and what was announced as a second nunnery but really turned out to be just a single wall left standing.. There was supposedly a second wall on the opposite side. But we couldn’t figure out which direction it was supposed to be in. I suppose there wasn’t much left of it.

We happened to be in Merida at the right time to watch a game of Pok-ta-pok in the city center. It’s on every Friday evening if you want to see it too. It was nice to get an idea of how the game would usually be played, even though I suspect that the life or death games the Mayas used to (probably) play had people that were a bit more accustomed to playing the game. Because the game wasn’t fascinating enough, they decided to light the ball on fire after a while. But, to even things out, you were then allowed to touch it with your hands.. As if you would want to!