Debbie & Alby in Central America

Stela C, Great 18 Rabbit, Great Plaza of Copan, HONDURAS
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September 15, 1999 -- The ruins of Copan marks the final point of La Ruta Maya (The Mayan Route). Our last ancient Mayan city also holds what is considered the greatest collection of Mayan sculpture ever found, showing images of past rulers with inscriptions recording important events during their reign from time of birth to time of death. The Hieroglyphic Stairway leading up a pyramid is the only one of its kind found where each step is inscribed - all of which is not fully understood because all the bricks were found in disarray upon discovery. Researchers theorize that the 63 inscribed steps represent the lineage tree of Copan┤s 14 rulers. Continued archeological studies and excavations have led to the building of tunnels directly under the site itself for archeologists to view Copan┤s urban structure. There are now 4 kms of tunnels built so far, revealing important tombs and two temples - Rosalila and Margarita, both found completely intact and protected from outside elements. From March of this year two tunnels were open for public viewing but for an extra charge. We didn┤t like that so we decided then to give them a miss. It must have been our lucky day. We were approached by one of the guards who was quite passionate about the ruins - he was actually well versed in Pre-Columbian history. He must have sensed our disappointment in the cost of viewing the tunnels and we expressed in broken Spanish that this is our last Mayan site on our way to South America. So he whispered that he will take us in the tunnels himself for half price. What a break! He showed us the Galindo Tomb and Rosalila Temple with a full run down of who built them, the inscriptions on the temples, where the granite building blocks came from and how they were cut. He even took us to one of the restricted access tunnels reserved only for reseachers for a brief look at the stucco mascarones (masks) below the public tunnel. He said that these temples were so sacred that the ancients built over and around them rather than destroy them during the city┤s expansion. It was certainly one of the highlights of La Ruta Maya.

September 16, 1999 -- We leave Copan and head westward to La Ceiba via San Pedro Sula on the Caribbean coast, then took a ferry to the island of Utila for relaxation. This tiny island is very popular for low cost scuba diving - land relatively undeveloped - climate extremely humid.

Like the other Central American countries, Honduras is rich in plant and wildlife, providing a picturesque and tranquil environment especially in the highlands surrounding its capital and the biosphere reserve of the Mosquitia region. Economically, however, Honduras is not doing too good. Relatively fresh out of the Contra War period in the 80┤s and many government scandals and corruption in the early 90┤s, it GNP is one of the lowest in Central America; exchange rate continually plummeting with an accumulation of a very large foreign debt. But looking around here and there we see signs of progress. The 3 main cities; La Ceiba, San Pedro Sula, and its capital Tegucigalpa are bustling and are of modern standards. The people of Honduras are interesting to look at. Everywhere, you will see sandy to blonde hair, hazel to green eyes, olive to very pale skin and nordic facial features all speaking Spanish - it was incredible to watch and listen. This is the Spanish-Indian mixture called mestizo which makes up around 90% of the Honduran population. Pure Indians taking 7% live in the more isolated regions and Garifuna ( Indian, Carib and African mixture), descendents of Jamaica and West Indies that mainly reside along the north coast make up approximately 3%.

September 22, 1999 -- Onward south to the Honduran Capital Tegucigalpa (9 hour bus ride).

Sepetember 23, 1999 -- Bus from Tegucigalpa heading south to the Nicaraguan border near Guasaule. The road from the border to Nicaragua┤s capital, Managua, was paved but terribly pot-holed with the trucks and buses (including ours) zigzagging all over the place to avoid them and each other. Again, we follow the long chain of volcanos on our way there. Managua is set on the southern edge of a lake of the same name. This city and its people have weathered several natural and man-made disasters during its period of development. Completely destroyed from an earthquake on 1931 then swept by fire 5 years later, it was rebuilt as a modern capital and commercial city of that time. Another earthquake in 1972 wiped out almost all the buildings, but the problem of maintaining its flattened landscape was "solved" by the Revolution of 1978-79. After a decision was made not to rebuild due to faults found under the downtown area, the city decentralized and now it spreads itself around the south of the lake and its still growing.

September 29, 1999 -- We have been here a week and plans were made to visit to colonial city of Granada, the volcanic island of Ometepe - the worlds largest island that is located in a freshwater lake (Lago de Nicaragua), the petroglyphs - hieroglyphs carved in stone by the Chorolega people that occupied that area during the Pre-Columbian period and the sacrificial site of Masaya - a volcano used by these people to appease the Goddess of the same name. Unfortunately, heavy rain throughout most of this week hampered all efforts to get to these places. So, we decided that a detour will be necessary on our way back up from the eastern coast of South America at a later date (making sure we arrive during the dry season.) We spent our time instead, walking around the city, stopping in various stores to dry off from the rain; catching up on a few movies and gouging ourselves in fast food restaurants. It was like we never left the U.S. An interesting sight in Managua is its trendy young workers; immaculately dressed, wearing cellphones on their hips. The presence of BMWs and Mercedes vehicles along with Asian equivalents seem to go against the stigma of stagnancy and widespread poverty along with its "no-go zone" label made from general media coverage. Managua is one of the safest cities in Latin America.

September 30, 1999 --We move on southward to San Jose - the capital city of Costa Rica. The 12 hour trip involved a border crossing at Sapoa. It was raining heavily the entire time and since windows couldn┤t be opened, it got to be a very stuffy bus ride. Along the way from the border to San Jose, the bus had to stop 5 times: 4 times for passport checks and once for everyone to get out of the bus and walk across a bridge suspect of collapsing under heavy vehicles. The river underneath was very high. Its thick brown colour is generally not a good sign. It was a terrible day, particularly for the Police and Paramedics on standby, guiding traffic one at a time and waiting for the bridge to go. Traffic was banked up for miles. Amidst all this, our concern was mainly focused on getting some air and cooling off in the rain. Arrival in the capital was 7pm. We dump our luggage at a hotel near the station and quickly head into the city centre to sample some of the country's finest cuisine: a couple of Big Macs, 2 large fries and large cokes went down very nicely. We couldn't figure out what was in the special sauce, though. But the texture of the sesame seed buns is something that cannot be matched anywhere in the world.

On October 11, our parents from Minnesota will arrive here for a 2-week visit. It will be a great opportinity to catch up on gossip and maybe dump some of our gear on them to take back. Our packs are getting heavier to run with as time passes on. Catching buses from station to station is becoming more of an ordeal (or maybe we're just getting out of shape).

Costa Rica -- In all its provinces except one, 98% of the population are whites and mestizos. The exception, the province of Limon, is 33% black. Indigenous Indians (only 5000 survive in the entire country) are officially 'protected', but live in very poor conditions.

Economy is agriculture-based: coffee, bananas, cocoa, sugar and meat.

One interesting piece of trivia: 'Mothers Day' is a public holiday here.

Costa Rica has a highly regarded reputation for its support in Ecotourism. But with its Government in favour of mass tourism development, there has been a continuing debate between them and Ecotourism lobbyists. In particular, arguments are currently centred towards the beach areas of the Pacific coast (Nicoya and Guanacaste Provinces).

The land itself is somewhat divided in half by a string of volconoes running northwest to southeast. Two-thirds of the country┤s population live in an area called the Meseta Central - where the capital city (San Jose) is located.

October 11, 1999 -- We pick up our American parents from the airport (16 kms out of San Jose).

3 days were spent catching up on news from the US, and sorting out equipment brought in for us - Ziplock bags, in particular, have proven to be very valuable - as necessary as toilet paper.

October 15, 1999 -- The 4 of us take a bus to Monteverde (4 1/2 hour ride) where there is a cloud forest reserve richly diverse in plant and wildlife (over 400 species of birds and over 100 species of mammals).

In the village centre of Santa Elena, where we stayed, an American couple running a restaurant there told us that at this time of year, rain is guaranteed from 1pm onwards every day. And sure enough, on the hour, down it came. Everyone in this area is very friendly. In Minnesota the main subject of conversation is the weather. In New Zealand it's work. Here in Monteverde it's the road - unpaved, muddy at times, and very uneven running 8 kms from Santa Elena to the Monteverde reserve. Many of the hotels, restaurants and tourist services are spread out along this road. The Monteverde settlement was founded by the American Quakers in the 1950's and much of the surrounding land is privately owned.

October 16, 1999 -- A visit to the Hummingbird Gallery - a good photo opportunity to catch masses of different kinds crowding around the feeders.

October 17, 1999 -- A walk 2 1/2 miles northeast from Santa Elena took us to Skywalk - a nature trail linked by 7 suspension bridges at various points through the cloud forest (the highest being 42 metres above ground). Spectacular views on this visit.

October 18, 1999 -- We visit Finca Ecologica to view some wildlife. It was an amazing picture: A very misty forest setting, very still. This is the transitional zone between cloud and tropical dry forest but all we could see and feel was rain, rain, rain and wet, wet, wet! A few highlights on this 6 hour walk - a coral snake (red and black stripes and extremely venomous); an army of strange-looking racoon-like animals but with a longer snout crossing our path - they were spread out almost in a line making a clean feeding sweep, each furiously digging as soon as a scent is picked up. They seemed very accustomed to human presence. It was like we were just another 4 trees to dig around; a steep declining path to a waterfall and a lookout point where, on arrival, the overall view was just thick with cloud then the wind would pick up a little which the cloud then breaks for just a few minutes to reveal rolling green hills far below.

October 19, 1999 -- We leave Santa Elena and head south to Fortuna to view the lakeside volcano - Volcan Arenal. One great way to see the volcano is at night from the Tabacon Resort. This place has in its 'backyard' several hot pools of different temperatures scattered around in a beautiful setting. We sat back comfortably with a drink in hand and watched glowing red lava oozing down the volcanic slope of Arenal.

October 21, 1999 -- Bus from Fortuna back to San Jose; a nice ride back with views of the country┤s rolling green hills patched with coffee and tobacco plantations.

October 25, 1999 -- Our parents from Minneapolis head home. A lot of tears throughout the day. For 2 weeks we were living in a lap of luxury and today we watch our meal ticket take off on a Continental flight. It was very sad. Oh well, back to reality.

October 27, 1999 -- The road to Panama City was 18 hours in total along the Pan American Highway; leaving San Jose 10pm and stopping at the border at 6am for a couple of hours the following day for immigration formalities.

A horizontal 'S'-shaped country, Panama is one of the great cross-roads of the world. Two-fifths of its population (total approx. 2.8 million) are concentrated in the two cities located at the entry and exit points of the canal. On December 31, 1999, Panama will assume full authority of the Canal Zone which previously, and at present, was under U.S. ownership. (We have heard that the authority may change at an earlier date.)

Like other countries in the Central American region, Panama's history is riddled with indigenous displacement, slave-trading, drug and contraband movements, Government scandals and corruption and foreign intervention. The building of the canal was a very long process which began in 1882. There were so many factors involved in its delay of completion; eg. overspending, tropical diseases (22,000 died), engineering difficulties, disputes over changes in ownership, civil in-fighting. The first passage through the canal was made on 15 August, 1914. The two people associated with the completion of the canal was a physician and an engineer. The former was responsible for clearing the area of the malignant tropical diseases.

October 28, 1999 -- We stayed in a rather interesting hotel in a section of the city called Casco Viejo (Old Compound) which is a small and narrow peninsula to the south of 'Bahia de Panama' (Bay of Panama). A very old hotel which still holds its colonial character despite its run-down state; a maze-like structure 3-stories high with decorated ceilings, finely-carved wooden railings along the stairwells with wrought iron railings in relief. This section of the city is currently undergoing restoration in an attempt to make Casco Viejo a tourist attraction. But personally, we preferred its current condition to remain.

November 6, 1999 -- A visit to the ruins of Panama Viejo (Old Panama)- the original capital founded August,1519. This area was used as a storage point for gold from Peru. The gold would then be transported by land on beasts of burden across the country to the Caribbean coast, loaded onto awaiting galleons on a heading to Spain. Panama Viejo soon became the centre of the New World where mines in various regions contributed up to 2 tons of gold a year. Within 60 years after its founding the town became one of extreme extravagance. To the enemies of Spain, however, it also became a 'treasure trove'. By 1671, after a 3 hour battle, the town was taken, stripped of its wealth, and then razed.

It's a very interesting walk around the remains, overlooking the bay. The coastal breeze sometimes blows hard through the stone structures making low whistling sounds. When you look out to sea, there is a large wrecked ship aground in front. Beyond it is a new freeway bridge which follows to the high and modern skyline of the new city in the distance. It's a strange and contrasting view of Panama City.

Photos and Text Copyright ę 1999-2001 Gardner-Berg. All rights reserved.

Sources of Further Reading-

Abrams, Elliot M. "How the Maya Built Their World: Energetics and Ancient Architecture" 1994.

Fash, William L. "Scribes, Warriors and Kings: The City of Copan and the Ancient Maya" Thames and Hudson, Ltd, London, 1991.

Edmisten, Patricia T. "Nicaragua Divided: La Prensa and the Chamorro Legacy" 1990.

Koster, Richard M and Sanchez, Guillermo. "In the Time of the Tyrants: Panama 1968-1990".

Paige, Jeffery M. "Coffee and Power: Revolution and the Rise of Democracy in Central America" 1997.

Randall, Margaret. "Sandeno's Daughter's Revisited: Feminism in Nicaragua" 1994.

Theroux, Paul. "The Mosquito Coast" 1996.


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