Posts Tagged With: Mayan jungle

Lost Kingdoms of the Maya – Bella Guatemala Travel

My latest journey with Bella Guatemala Travel. Get to know one of the most fascinating civilizations and cultures on Earth, as they take you on an intrepid expedition to discover the “Lost Kingdoms of the Maya” world! (Filmed on location in Guatemala and Honduras)

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La Selva Maya – Petén, Guatemala

Tikal(Tikal – 2015)

So here I was, in the jungle of Petén, Guatemala just a few short weeks ago. I made my way up the zigzagging wooden staircase that ascends to the top of Temple IV in the mighty ruins of Tikal. Far less neck-slapping of mosquitos this time around. A dry, sunny April day made for an incredible contrast to my last experience in this mystical world of wonder, which saw me slipping around the ruins wearing a bright yellow rain slicker that made me look like a greased up banana with legs…hairy legs, even less flattering to the locals (perhaps not to the howler monkeys). I had made this trek and climb before, about 7 years ago. Same green bag, different shoes and camera. You always know you’re in a special place when, even though you’ve been there before, it feels like a unique experience the second time around, one that has your eyeballs peeled away in total awe of your surroundings, with an equal or greater impression felt than that of your first visit.

The jungle is raw, alive…constantly whispering its stories of the past though ancient structures and their decipherable remains. It breathes a silent air and echos a mystical tune as you stand above a canopy of endless green and inhale sweeping views of this storied land that has harbored centuries of warriors, kings, slaves, innovation, peace & prosperity, death & destruction. La Selva Maya – The Mayan Jungle. It’s still there…with the same sun casting its rays upon it daily, whether dampened or glowing. Oh, the stories it could tell…

Tikal, Guatemala(A floating mist blankets the jungle on my first visit to Tikal back in 2008)

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Fresh off the spool…hammock shopping in Mexico

I love seeing this portrait of a local Mayan woman putting the finishing touches on a beautiful hand-crafted hammock for me. I drove around Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula for several days looking for a traditional homemade “hamaca” that I could bring back to my parents. Not that it was on their wish list or anything, or that they would ever use it. All they ever ask for is either a magnet or some sea salt. But I once bought them a rug in Morocco that was most likely manufactured in Taiwan (it had to be, it was way too cheap), so I was aiming for a little redemption here. Besides, the origin of the hammock dates back over 1000 years and is credited to the Maya. If anyone knows how to weave a proper hammock, it’s these people. So, with a few inquiries to the locals, a kind villager directed me to the town of Tekit, where I was told to look for the “blue house”. (That’s how directions work in this part of the world. No addresses, just colors.)

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After erroneously knocking on the door of the first blue house I saw, I ended up finding the right “casa azul”, as I saw this woman carefully crafting a lovely, tropical-colored 10-footer that was hanging in her workshop. I don’t know if I was just craving Skittles or what, but this rainbow of intricately woven fibers caught my eye immediately. Major score! Now, there’s a difference between “homemade” and “handmade”. Handmade just means it was made by someone’s hands. Factory workers in China make “handmade” items all the time. Doesn’t mean it was made by a local artist, or that it isn’t a replica. Burgers at McDonald’s are handmade. They’re crap. “Homemade” is exactly what it says it is…you get it from someone’s home, sprinkled with love and genuine family-coated TLC. It’s like grandma’s banana bread. Always best to get it straight from the source. (If you get a homemade item in Spain it may come sprinkled with the scent of cigarettes. But hey, I’d much rather have an aesthetically inferior item of authenticity over a polished replica any day, albeit tobacco-tainted.) Nothing more discontenting than getting excited about purchasing that local Peruvian alpaca scarf, only to find the all-too-familiar “Made in Indonesia” tag sticking out from the bottom (unless you’re actually in Indonesia – but even then, alpacas in Indonesia?).

I didn’t even negotiate the price, which is common practice down in Mexico. I was so happy to be getting an authentic item of the finest local quality and variety, directly from the artist (who’s ancestors invented the thing). To me, this is the equivalent of a gallery curator being handed a Rembrandt from the man himself. Authenticity is at the core of “real world” life experiences. If you read this blog regularly, you’ll hear me preach about it often. Can a brother get an “amen” up in here? I could have saved some valuable time and energy and bought a hammock from any of the numerous roadside tourist souvenir shops I passed along the way to Tekit, but I’ve grown weary of the typical (and universal) salesman’s pitch of “100% authentic”, “handmade”, “indigenous”, “local artisan” – blah, blah, blah. If you pay a lot of money to go somewhere or purchase something, you want it to be legit. It’s an investment in great experiences, great memories or a product you will be totally satisfied with. After all, that’s what travel is really all about. If you don’t care about having a true experience, cancel that trip to Paris and take your butt to Las Vegas. You can visit Paris, New York, Rio and Venice all in the same day for a fraction of the price (unless you get sucked into that stupid Wheel of Fortune slot machine at the Rio. I emptied my wallet on that rigged-ass money-guzzler. To this day, I still curse at the sight of Pat Sajak every time I see him on TV.)

Only thing left for me to do now is to teach my mom how to lay in a hammock without flipping over like a sunscreen-slicked fat kid jumping on a wet intertube at the community pool. I never get tired of seeing that though. 🙂

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Of course, I gotta give a shout out to the kind gentleman who pointed me in the direction of the “blue house”. He wasn’t selling his hammock that day. Hope he got a commission though, or a plate of whatever she was cooking up in the kitchen that afternoon.

Yucatan, Mexico

 

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The WORST bus ride in the history of my life!

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“Who’s freakin’ bag is this leaking on me?!?!” Seriously? I’m sweltering from the jungle heat and the peppery chili-scented breath creeping down the side of my neck, and a cold shower was about all that I could dream for at this point. But a sticky Kool-Aid shower was not on my wish list. That was about the breaking point for me, where my temper began to snap like the Titanic right after it went ass up in the middle of the Atlantic. “Get me off of this f***ing thing!”

Let me set the stage for you here. I’m an independent traveler. By “independent”, I mean I don’t book organized tours, don’t use travel agents and never have any means of luxury transportation waiting for me when I travel (unless I’m getting escorted by the authorities across the Bolivian border). I adhere to the core principles of Gonzo journalism wherever I go (without all the drugs). If you want to truly know your subject, you need to embed yourself into their lifestyle and live like they do. (I’m still trying to score that gig with Hugh Hefner). Furthermore, I love to get off the beaten track and “travel like a local”, per se. It’s more of a “keep it real” experience that I’m after, and there’s no better way to “keep it real” than riding the buses in so-called “3rd world” Latin America.

So I’m in a little pueblo named Copan Ruinas in western Honduras. I’m trying to get to the mighty ruins of Tikal, Guatemala. The trip should be about a 7-hr bus ride they tell me. No worries. I’m pretty pooped from touring the sights of Copan so I’ll probably knock out once I’m on the bus and get semi-comfortable (assuming the longer route buses are a bit more comfy than the rickety ones that just hop between the local towns). I wasn’t too concerned. I’ve done it before. Got my ticket, ready to roll.

I expected the bus to be late, and it was. That’s typical. Bus schedules are like weather forecasts to Eskimos in these parts of the world. They don’t really matter. What I didn’t expect was a clunky, 70’s-style retired school bus straight from the junkyard of Sanford and Son’s that would show up over-flowing with Guatemalans and Hondurans, looking like the last stop at a refugee camp (similar to the opening scene from Scarface). To make it worse, only about 3 people got off and about 10 people got on. I was one of those “lucky” 10. Forget about “standing-room only”, this was more like “arms and legs out the window – room only”! What the hell!? This is unacceptable! I had my paid ticket in hand and a room reservation in Tikal, so there was no way I was missing this bus, even if I did have to ride with my head out the window, Ace Ventura style. “If you have a ticket, come on”, ordered the driver. Oh, Jesus.

After squeezing my slender frame through a crowd of sweaty rancheros and ponytailed natives, I made my way aboard. I had nowhere to go really but to stand in the center of the bus. I was a foot taller than anyone on that bus so I had a panoramic view of the misery on everyone’s face as they curiously watched this gringo getting the “local experience” he so ambitiously desired. The first 45 minutes of the trip had me standing in the aisle, weaving and swaying alongside all of the other unfortunate riders of this rickety roller coaster on 4 wheels. I was clinging to the seat beside me so tightly to keep my balance that I damn nearly ripped it off the floor.

Less than an hour in, the driver decides to pull over at a rest stop to grab some lunch and take a little siesta. Siesta my ass! Keep this hunk o’ junk in motion buddy. If we stop, we may never get it going again. We need some air up in here too, it’s blistering! I just saw an iguana walking around with a cantina! In the meantime, “Act One” of what would be a series of characters providing our in-transit entertainment that day would make his way on board. I don’t know if this is routine down here or what, but this dude walks on the bus in full-on Barnum & Bailey clown wardrobe, pink wig and all, and commands everyone’s attention while he starts blabbering about who knows what. All I could make out was that he wanted some donations. Donations? For what Bozo?? You don’t even have any tricks! Listen, I’m all for helping those in need, but usually a guy dressed like a clown has some tricks up his striped sleeve. Juggle some tamales, set your mouth on fire, do some hocus pocus and make a few more empty seats magically appear…don’t just stand there with a poorly painted sad face and a shabby looking wig and expect my sympathy when I’m standing on this hot ass bus with half of Guatemala trying to get across the border. Where’s that bus driver damnit? I didn’t pay for any lackluster clown entertainment with no a/c while our driver decides to take an afternoon nap. This is bulls**t.

Finally, the driver comes back and Chewy the Clown heads off, his painted facial expression of dejection unchanged due to the fact that he didn’t earn many tips that day. Next time bring some balloons or a trick pony aboard, fool. We proceed.

I’m still standing in the middle of the bus, 80 minutes in. My legs are starting to cramp due to a full day of Mayan jungle trekking the day before. I decide to join some of the locals and take a seat on the floor in the middle of the aisle. It was funky and dirty, but I was desperate for some relief. Not even 20 minutes from our last stop, the bus halts again. No one is leaving. Enter “Act Two: The face cream specialist”. Now who the hell is this guy? He comes aboard with his palate of skin care products, creams and herbal remedies, giving us this pitch straight out of an infomercial sponsored by Cheech and Chong. He then proceeds to pass samples around the bus and asks people to try it out. No cream is gonna stick to anyone’s face in this blistering heat. Why don’t you try selling something useful, like an air-conditioning unit? Perhaps a family pack of Gatorade? This is ridiculous. Where the hell is that driver off to this time? He just had a damn siesta, how the hell can he be outside stretching his legs? We only went 10 miles! This whole “authentic experience” stuff was beginning to seem like a really bad idea.

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Finally, we get going again, and after 2 hours aboard the circus on wheels, a few older ladies sitting close to me spontaneously decide to ask the driver to let them off up ahead. I think they were just gonna walk the next 200 miles rather than deal with this madness. I saw an opportunity here. Two small individual seats near the back were about to become wide open and no one was initially chomping at the bit to grab them. I know, as a gentleman, I’m supposed to give up any free seats to the elderly or to a mother and her children, but I wasn’t exactly in a “giving” mood at this point. I was more in a Steve Martin from The Jerk sort of mood, if you know what I’m sayin’, so of course I snatched one of those seats as soon as the Guatemalan Golden Girls got up. We still had 5 hours to go in this nightmare…I’m no dummy. Ahhhh, yes…how I had missed the comforts and legroom of…an airplane restroom. What the…? Was this bus designed for people with no legs? I know I have long gams, but if your body is anything beyond a torso with arms on this thing you’re gonna have a hard time getting comfortable. I’m sitting there with my legs straddling the seat in front of me like a cowboy mounted on a bull. This is borderline sexual assault on the girl sitting in front of me. She could have used my knees as arm rests. (Now I take back all the shit I ever said about Delta airlines.) But, to be honest, I was just happy to be off the floor and next to a window that barely opened, providing a teaser of warm outside air to cool my melting skin.

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The timing might have been a little premature for the old ladies to get off the bus, as “Act Three” would take the stage shortly after their departure. I call this guy “The Anti-Gas Vendor”. He comes on the bus selling his gastritis pills and anti-bloating medication. Is this even legal? There was actually a few people on the bus who took interest and bought some of this stuff. Where was the damn snow cone vendor when you need him?? Maybe if they cut back on those Merciless Chili Peppers of Quetzalacatenango (also known as the Guatemalan Insanity Pepper) they wouldn’t need these pills. Those are the hottest things ever ripped from the Earth. I’m assuming those chilis were the real cause of the extinction of the Mayan Empire. There’s no remedy for that fuego burning in your head and gut. Legend has it that they were grown deep in the jungle by the inmates of a Guatemalan insane asylum. Makes perfect sense to me. Moving on.

The final act in this Twilight Zone marathon was “the preacher”. Look, I’m an ex- Christian (who also happens to be an ex-sailor, so please excuse the foul language). I’m not gonna say anything bad about a guy trying to spread the good word to the masses…and being that half of the country’s population was on this bus, I understand that it was an opportune moment for him to get the word out. The one gripe I have with this one was his method for doing so, under the circumstances. He prayed for all of us, which I had already done several times up until this point. I prayed for some seats, air, elbow room, water, no more clowns, a functioning toilet, a new driver…and of course, for our safety. Amen. He then proceeds to go straight up ‘gospel church on Sunday’ style and breaks into some songs. No one is in the mood for praise and worship at this moment, c’mon brother. (But if you’re offering communion, I can sure use a shot of some of that juice right now.) Then he asks if anyone is in need of a personal prayer and blessing. Well duh, we all are at this point! (Forgive me “Lord”.) Of course, the one person who raises their hand is sitting right next to me near the very back of the bus, so the preacher decides to crawl across several bodies that were still sitting (or laying) on the floor to reach his prayer subject. Now was that really necessary? I’m pretty sure the “Lord” is gracious and able enough to carry that prayer the full length of the bus without having to disturb the poor people who are sleeping on a dirty, gum-caked floor, desperately awaiting their turn for a seat in this rolling inferno machine. So, he leapfrogged to the back of the bus, placed his hands upon the woman next to me and granted her prayer request with a passionate delivery (spit flying out of his mouth and everything). Great, now I have to pray for a napkin too, thanks. After 1o minutes of receiving prayer and saliva, I sure hope the woman was feeling blessed.

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Through all of this, I was miraculously able to maintain my composure and attitude. I actually managed to get some brief shut eye at one point, aided by the soothing cadence of a loose muffler scraping along the highway. Throughout my interrupted sleep, I would enjoy the sounds of chickens yelping and babies crying over the next several hours. I just had to stay calm and convince myself that I was dreaming of eating KFC at a day care. I don’t know how long I was out, but when I awoke, I didn’t have quite the same calm demeanor as I had maintained for the first part of this trip. I kept feeling these drops of fluid land on my shoulder and arm. Drip. There’s another one. Drip. There’s another. What in the chicken shit is that? I looked up and noticed that somebody’s bag in the unsealed storage compartment overhead was about to burst with some sort of oozing liquid goop. I wasn’t sure if that was rooster blood or hot sauce. It was red and sticky like molassas, and it was steadily dripping onto my forearm and t-shirt. (Unfortunately, that napkin prayer hadn’t been answered yet.) Man, I’m like really pissed off by now. I’m quite over the whole “authentic experience” thing at this point. It’s hotter than a hog pen in Houston, these babies won’t stop crying, the muffler is still scraping, I’m having nightmares of being bloated from a lack of gastritis supplements and being attacked by talentless clowns, and now…above all…I’m getting a mother f***ing bloody Kool-Aid shower! And that, my friends, is about the exact point when I lost it and shouted out, “Get me off of this f***ing thing!!”

I still had 3 hours to go. Needless to say, by the time we reached the ruins, I was ruined.

That was the worst bus ride of my life.

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Disclaimer:  No Hondurans or Guatemalans were attacked or harmed during this journey. I’m truly a big fan of both countries and their wonderful people. I’ll just explore the option of flying next time.

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Beyond the surface – exploring Mexico’s “underworld”

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What if I told you I knew of a little place on the map where its truest beauty runs deep beyond the surface? A dark, sacred world that nourishes the roots of the storied land above it. A mystifying place where an ancient civilization once conducted ceremonies of worship and made sacrifices to its dieties. What would you say if I told you that for a few dollars and a shower you can visit this exotic and mysterious world and swim in its pure, crystalline waters under a natural dome of stalactites, subterranean roots and Neotropical bats? You’d most likely freak out with excitement at the opportunity…or simply just freak out. This isn’t a theme park attraction at Universal Studios folks. This is an amazing natural feature of the ancient Mayan land. These are the unique sites found in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula: Cenotes.

I had first heard of the cenotes (natural water-filled sinkholes) while researching my initial trip to the Yucatán several years back. Like most travelers to this part of the world, all I knew about this area was that you can climb a pyramid in the jungle, spend your days lazing on a dreamy beach and that there is a mega nightclub named after a frog somewhere in the city that represents the world’s premiere Spring Break playground. I had no idea that there was action beneath the action…like people swimming underground, diving through a network of water-forged cave passages and taking photos in their swimsuits and snorkel masks with insectivorous bats flying overhead…all while the rest of the world above is busy footslogging through Mayan ruins, sipping colorful rum concoctions and applying Aloe Vera to their sun-baked backsides. This created a fascinating level of intrigue to me…and to honor rule #3 in my Gringo With A Green Bag Travel Handbook:  When the Gringo is intrigued, the Gringo must explore!

So, months later, I found myself on the outskirts of a little village called Chunkanán in the heart of the Yucatán. I was here because my research, and some trusted natives, pointed me in the direction of a town called Cuzama, where they said some of the best cenotes were located. I had heard that there was a way to see 3 amazing cenotes via a guided horse-drawn “truck”  tour in this town, which lies only a short 45 minutes from the Yucatán capital of Mérida. But my introduction to the cenotes would not happen via this tour, rather via a result of my independent traveler-intrigued mind and faulty navigation, which led me to mistakingly pass the town of Cuzama and end up parked near a sign on the side of a dirt road several miles away that read “Cenote Aktun-Ha”. There were no tour guides here, no horses, no people, no rental cars, no hotels or post-card stands…my idea of paradise my friends! I had to see what the hype was with these cenote things. So, left turn down a road seemingly to nowhere…this is how it’s done.

I arrive at a traditional Mayan thatched hut with a few dogs outside and some children’s toys and clothing scattered throughout the area. A woman comes out of the home with a little girl by her side and I greet them with a “buenos dias”. I told the woman that I was looking for the cenote. She pointed to an area behind the house and said that she would lead me over to it. She politely asked for a donation of about 40 pesos ($3) to see the cenote. I eagerly paid her, and suddenly found myself face to face with this…

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“Whooooooaaaaaa!”, I uttered in Spanish (it translates the same, I think)…then proceeded to back up a bit.

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Are you kidding me?? Now I’ve done some risky & adventurous stuff in my lifetime, and have always come out alive, but usually I can see what the hell I’m getting myself into. I can’t even see the bottom of this thing! It’s pitch black down there! Holy Sinkhole, Batman! Heck, even the Dark Knight himself would probably think twice about scaling down that iron death rail. As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what it is…an old rail track from the henequen industry days, welded to another one below and converted into a ladder. Look at how it’s rigged…rusted chains and weathered rope bound to a suspect piece of rock…is there an insurance policy included in that 40 pesos?? And what was that other rope for? To carry out the remains of unfortunate tourists who never made it back up?? Ok, calm down…after a few deep breaths and a reinforced blessing of confidence by my host, I tightened the straps of my green bag, checked the structural integrity of the ladder and headed down into the darkness.

Descending the vertical railway into this dusky cavern was an adventure all to itself. It felt sturdy enough (a bit wobbly), but at about 40 feet up from the bottom, there was ZERO room for error. One slip and you’ll be considered the next sacrificial subject to the Mayan Rain God, Chaac. I slowly lowered myself down in true baby step form, headed towards a glimmer of water down below at the base. (You really don’t want to look down, as they always say.) I noticed a good number of spider webs criss-crossing the corroded metal frame that was functioning as my life support, which led me to wonder when the last time was that someone had actually been down here. Then, all of the sudden I hear an eerily familiar “squeek, squeek” sound. Yup…you guessed it…freakin’ BATS! Two feisty bats zipped right across my head, with several others hanging from the ceiling of this crazy underground Legend of Zelda looking labyrinth, which just made me want to get to the bottom faster. I finally get to the last few steps and find them submerged in about a foot of water. Damn. Off go the shoes I guess. There just happened to be a bucket within reach on the end of that rope, which I’m sure is intended for retrieving water and not for storing Nike cross-trainers. But walking around all day with soggy feet sucks, so it served a practical purpose for me.

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Once I was able to secure my footing and get a 360 degree view of this place, I was left stunned. You can’t even imagine that something like this exists below the ground above, which is pretty much a flat, consistent layer of porous scrub jungle. This was an outer-worldy underworld. What time was the warlock returning to close his sky roof I wondered? It’s obvious why the Maya viewed the cenotes as sacred sites and portals to the next life. This place emitted strong metaphysical vibes concealed under a dome of unimaginable beauty. The fresh cenote water (home to a rare species of eyeless fish) is as strikingly blue and clear as you’ve ever seen. Formations of stalactites and stalagmites above and below face off like armies on opposite ends of a battlefield. The air was thin & humid and I was melting like a snow cone in Sedona. A splash of crisp cave water on the face never felt more refreshing. I spent a good 45 minutes down here all by myself (except for those bats dangling overhead), photographing the details of this murky and fascinating underground lair while sweat steadily dripped down on my dewey camera with the frequency of a metronome. This was an amazing experience. And to think, had that little section of limestone rock not caved in from above, this place would have never be seen by a human being. That’s the beauty of the cenotes…there are literally thousands of these throughout the peninsula, most of them still undiscovered. Luckily for us, many of them have been discovered, and you don’t have to go far from wherever you are in the Yucatán to see one. Now, hold that ladder lady, I’m comin’ back up!

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Since that initial Indiana Jones escapade down into my first cenote, I’ve had the opportunity to explore many more, and they are all glorious. They definitely earn top rank as the highlight of my experiences in the Yucatán Peninsula. Besides their remarkable beauty, they are all so unique in size, ambience and form. While most are found underground (easy to access, thanks to the locals who maintain them), there are also many that lie right on the surface. To attempt to describe each one with a worthy level of descriptiveness would grossly over-estimate my ability to do so. Therefore, I’ll shut up and let the images do the talking. All I can say is, if you come to the Yucatán, kick off your shoes, put your adventure hat on and get to know these unique natural wonders that the Maya dubbed “Ts’onots” (“wells”), referring to any place with accessible groundwater. Some are more easily “accessible” than others (as I learned from my first cenote experience), but the true adventure lies in one’s willingness to explore the unknown.

Contrary to popular belief, the Mayans never attempted to predict the “end of the world”. However, they were among the lucky few to discover sites like these…where the physically familiar world we know ends, and an unfamiliar one begins. That, my friends, is what draws me to travel. Encounters with the unfamiliar always result in fresh ink in the diary of life experiences. So get your pens ready and add Mexico’s cenotes to your bucket list. Just don’t forget your shoes on the way out. 😉

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