Wednesday, January 5, 2011

An adventurous holiday

We arrived in Guatemala around 10 in the morning of 23 December, leaving Belize and the comforts of conversing in English behind. Our initial enchantment with the country was again dampened a bit by its magnificent hills - beautiful to look at but absolute torture to ride up. When all else failed (which it did), we had the pleasure of pushing our bikes up a monster of a hill for 35 minutes straight.

Once we arrived at El Sombrero Ecolodge, we had vivid flashbacks to our time in Vietnam, where showing up independently and unannounced will reward you with blank stares and a good serving of bewilderment. But the location right on the Yaxha laguna and only 3km from the archeological site is unbeatable. It's also the only option in a 20km radius or so, and we were thrilled to camp up in the little "tree house" platform for a mere $5.

This is camping luxury my friends - El Sombrero Ecolodge, Yaxha
Our visit to the ancient Mayan city of Yaxha, which flourished during the Late Classic period, was magical despite an unusual arrival. My brakes were acting up the past 2 days, so we arrived at the bottom of the gravel hill to find a large group of American tourists pointing in our direction and looking rather disappointed that all the raucous was caused by a silly girl on a bike rather than a jaguar chasing some wild pigs down the hill. I believe the whole saga was captured on at least 6 camcorders to enthrall the family back home with... apart from this group who left after taking a few photos, we had the whole site to ourselves. Yaxha is structured around a central axis with one of the avenues stretching down the hill to connect directly to the lake. We climbed the stairs from the lake through the forest and progressed through grassy tree-covered mounds to half uncolvered small structured to perfectly restored temples. We sat for a long time on top of one of the temples that towered of the green canopy listening to the howler monkeys and contemplating human nature and the rise and fall of civilizations.

Christmas dinner was a turkey with all the trimmings, shared with the owners of El Sombrero and two German bird watchers who were visiting an insane number of mayan sites on their short trip. Pre-dinner we realised that we didn't change enough money at the border, and we were already $3 short to pay our bill, and the closest ATM is a day's ride away. Hunger won, and it was decided that we would feast for Christmas Eve and spend the following day (Xmas) tagging along on the Germans' tour to a remote Mayan site called El Naranjo, since they were passing through a town with an ATM on the way.

We started the El Naranjo adventure at 9am. Sebastian was driving, Gabriella was commentating, Carlos - a short but sharp Mayan man we picked up along the way - was giving driving directions through the cattle fields and what little jungle remained, the Germans were checking their watches and looking anxious, and we sat in the back of the pick-up bouncing around like popcorn and not knowing where we were or where we were going. By noon we had to call a mechanic out to the rocky road to come and remove some small rocks from the brakes. By 1pm we were a mere 4km from the site when the road disappeared into a meter deep cement-like black mud (a guaranteed stuck) and we had to turn back. By 2pm we had backtracked most of the way, found an alternative path, asked permission from the farmer to cross his land, removed some trees from the road and now stood facing a locked gate ($%#?????) at the bottom of a steep hill. Reversing was not an option, turning around was impossile, and my suggestion of just ramming the gate down was disapproved. By now the Germans looked thoroughly distressed. We ate some wild mushrooms while we waited for Sebastian, who had hiked 2km back to get a key, to return. We figured any outcome from the mushrooms would be an improvement to the situation. We were disappointed.

At last the key arrived, we crossed that last of the 5km on a track barely fit for horses and arrived (Merry Chistmas!) at 3pm at El Naranjo archeological site. The site is currently being consolidated by a team of over 100 people, who were all home for the holidays, so we wandered through the completely deserted site in peace. Carlos - the Mayan guy - worked at the site for 8 months drawing every piece of the main temple for the catalogue, and he had lots of cool information to share. As with other post-classic sites impending doom could be foretold by the architecture: the rish and powerful lived in impossibly high structures; they built their own courtyards high in the shy and walled off the entrances to avoid contact with the suffering masses. Ornately carved walls were not as common anymore and the building stones were much smaller because the quarries were depleted. The sacrificial temple was hence augmented. Again we pondered civilization.

We had a really adventurous Christmas, but we did miss our families and a more familiar festivity. We hope you all had a wonderful time and relaxed till you were bored!


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