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Guatemala Highlands and Copan Honduras

Author: lynncarol (More Trip Reviews by lynncarol)
Date of Trip: January 2010

Leaving the airport, our shuttle to Antigua ran right into rush hour and with twenty-four percent of the entire country's population living in Guatemala City it gave new meaning to the word "traffic-jam". The roads were all one-way, but within that parameter, no traffic lanes existed. Cars edged past with inches to spare. 'Chicken busses' (so named as anything can be brought onboard) with riders hanging from the doors, muscled their way into the melee. Such a spectacle precipitated a sort of horrified fascination. Finally, around 8:00 p.m. we arrived at the resort and headed straight for the bar. Dinner could wait!

Wednesday morning's agenda was a walking tour with Elizabeth Bell, a long-time resident, author and (supposedly) the best tour guide in Antigua. Our 2 1/2 hour stroll included a number of sites we had not yet seen, including a ghostly crypt within old cathedral ruins and several fascinating museums. Ms. Bell, (who we found to be rather arrogant) was never-the-less a fountain of information, and significantly enhanced our knowledge of Guatemala. We learned education is required through the sixth grade, but there is no enforcement of this policy. Worse, all educational expenses (except teacher salaries) are borne by the parents, and in large families, this becomes an insurmountable burden.

The largest percentage of gross national product comes from workers abroad, sending money home. Tourism is the next greatest revenue and both sources have taken a 'significant hit' in the last few years. Athough the country is predominantly Catholic, many Mayans (who constitute a majority of the population) continue to practice some form of their ancient religion. The most helpful bit of information? Ms. Bell showed us the one ATM machine in town that was not only tamper-proof but dispensed US dollars.

By the time our tour was completed, it was late in the afternoon. Lunch was at the Restaurant Dona Luisa, which had its own on-site bakery. We were starving and waiting for our food amidst aromas of fresh bread was tortuous. Hunger appeased, we headed for the last attraction on our 'must-see' list: The Inglesia de San Francisco, one of the oldest still-standing churches in Antigua. In addition to a small but lovely garden, San Francisco houses the remains of a local saint whose intercession is sought for illness. We noticed several families praying fervently by his tomb. From the back of the church, one moaning penitent approached the altar on his knees. I put my camera away for in the face of such anguish it seemed sacrilegious to be taking photos.

Thursday morning, we had reservations for a tour of a coffee plantation, Finca Colombia and were picked up by the plantation owner herself, a personable woman of Spanish ancestry. Just ten minutes from town, we encountered a whole other world behind the plantation's gated entrance. Acres of coffee plants grew beneath shade trees and in the distance, Volcano Acatenango. There were only 3 of us on the tour with a two hour immersion in the production of making coffee, from seed to cup. Beans were sun-roasted & shells composted. Absolutely fascinating!

Tour completed, we were taken to her coffee shop in Antigua and offered a complimentary cup. Not far away was the Welten, a renowned restaurant encompassing several rooms of an old mansion. We chose a table in the interior courtyard which overlooked a small pool sprinkled with floating rose petals! Our meal? The best yet: Plums with chicken and fish topped by a local white bean sauce. Once again, nobody else was there except a guitarist who (only briefly, thank goodness) serenaded us.

Before heading back to our resort, there was time to get some souvenir shopping done: Textiles and jade jewelry in this city were fabulous, and high-end examples, although not dirt cheap, were certainly good buys.

Friday would be our last full day at the Soleil and we were ready for some down-time. The big Roche conference group from Colombia, which had been in residence since Monday, had all left that morning. (Really early we knew, thanks to their noisy five busses parked beneath our window). The resort seemed almost deserted: A good time to sit around the pool and read. That evening, with the hotel's dining room finally emptied, we enjoyed another good meal.

Returning to our room, the noise of fireworks seemed more intense than usual. (Did I mention that firecrackers are very popular in Guatemala)? Out on the balcony, as our condo-neighbors were also admiring the display, we invited them in for a drink. Hailing from Michigan, they were avid time- share swappers, having spent the previous week on Guatemala's Pacific coast.

Our week at the time-share in Antigua was over and as we sat in the hotel lobby early Saturday morning, my mood swung between anticipation and anxiety. Back in November, based solely on one enthusiastic recommendation in a travel magazine, I had electronically contacted Sergio Garcia to be our guide and driver for the next five days. Over a period of several months (and numerous emails) the two of us had created an itinerary designed to focus on the Mayan culture. Now I was nervous. We would be spending an awfully lot of time together. What if we didn't like Sergio or he drove like a typical (ie...reckless) Guatemalan?

Sergio arrived fifteen minutes early (a feat nobody in Guatemala had managed to accomplish). Thirty years of age, and of Mayan descent, he spoke fluid English, was conversant in three other languages and trying to learn a fifth: Hebrew. Hailing from a village near Antigua, and currently pursuing a Masters degree at the local university, Sergio described himself as having a 'thirst for knowledge'. We were to discover he had a wide range of interests and an engaging personality. Plus, Sergio turned out to be a very good driver with an impeccable Hyundai. We couldn't have picked a better guide!

Today's destination was the Mayan ruins of Copan in Honduras and by 9:00 we were off, heading east on the bicoastal National Road. Few highways exist in such mountainous terrain and Sergio informed us this one was built by the British. In exchange they demanded (and received) territory that now comprises the country of Belize, effectively eliminating most of Guatemala's Caribbean ports.

Eventually we swung south and around 3:00 reached the Honduran border. Long lines of trucks parked on the roadside behind the barrier. Apparently, guards often demand an additional 'facilitation payment' and if drivers don't ante up, they wait...sometimes for hours. Sergio, however, had been doing this for years and personally knew those in authority. Within minutes, we were into Honduras and approaching the nearby town of Copan Ruinas, so named for its proximity to the excavations. Nothing there particularly noteworthy except the small Museo Regional de Arqueologia, the first museum built to house the archeological finds at Copan. Included were some magnificent carvings, statuary and creations in jade. Our favorites? The large incense-lids with their crisp and humorous depictions of scholars and deities.

While Sergio was staying in town, Lynn and I had reservations for the next two nights at the Hacienda San Lucas, our 'big splurge' with its boutique accommodations and five-course dinners on site. Located on a promontory overlooking the Copan River and accessed by a long rutted dirt road, this place was certainly 'off-the-beaten-track'. Flavia, the gracious owner of Hacienda San Lucas prided herself on being very eco-friendly and everything was either solar powered or candlelight. (A very aesthetic experience as long as you weren't trying to read or find something in the suitcase).

Ensconced on Adirondack chairs with the valley spread below, we sipped wine and enjoyed the sunset until called for dinner. Climbing the hill, our path to the outdoor dining area was lit by candles. The only other guests in residence were a cosmopolitan male couple who, we later learned, shared half of our bungalow. Dinner was absolutely delicious, but no way could I eat all those courses. Even Lynn eventually ran out of steam.

With Sergio picking us up the next morning promptly at eight- thirty, there was barely time to enjoy our breakfast. However, we had an exciting day ahead: The famous Mayan ruins at Copan (which, I hoped, wouldn't pale in comparison to Tikal). Honduras requires all visitors to utilize the services of local guides while touring the ruins and Sergio had reserved his friend Cesar, an inspired choice! Without Cesar, we would have missed many of the carvings and inscriptions that made Copan so unique. Tikal's structures had been created from limestone. Copan utilized volcanic rock and this stronger substance preserved the hieroglyphics and stelae to a much greater degree than we had previously seen.

This was truly a magical place. Wild macaws shrieked from the trees and leaves fluttered to the ground in a shower of gold. Some of the highlights: A Hieroglyphic Stairway, the longest known piece of hieroglyphic writing in the Americas with its 63 steps depicting the genealogy of Copan's rulers and the city's history from mythical beginnings through the reign of the 15th ruler. The great plaza was filled with stelae (upright stones or slabs with intricate carvings) and ball courts were extremely well preserved. Although it couldn't match the size of Tikal, Copan was definitely just as awe-inspiring. We loved it!

Tour completed, we stopped for lunch at the complex's cafeteria. Armed militias were swarming about: The president of Honduras, Roberto Micheletti was onsite! This was an exciting development: Quite infamous, President Micheletti had been installed by the Honduran Congress last summer after a coup, resulting in political turmoil at home and outraging the international community. Apparently, we just missed seeing him.

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