I am now in Northern Guatemala and while I have been here, I have visited Tikal, one of the most famous ancient Mayan cities in Guatemala. The Mayan empire that covered part of Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and the rest of Guatemala.
The pyramids of Tikal are some of the largest in the region. The city of Tikal was at its zenith between 1800 and 1100 years ago. It was a ceremonial centre and bustling city in its time.
Tikal is now surrounded by a tropical rainforest that has been declared a national park. It is very biodiverse, with many species of trees and plants, including huge Ceiba trees, mahogany and cocoa, massive fan palms and many other species. There are also different kinds of animals, including Jaguar and around 300 species of birds. When I visited Tikal it was early in the morning and it had just rained - so a perfect time for seeing many different types of birds. I was pleased to see a toucan while I was there, I've been hoping to see one on my whole central american trip. There are also lots of other creatures in the area, including spider monkeys that swing nimbly through the trees and the bellowing calls of howler monkeys echo through the site.
At the grand plaza the huge pyramids face each other. To one side is a ball court. There are also royal residences, a sarcophagus, an observatory and many stone stelae (carved stone plinths covered in figures and hieroglyphics), altars for ritual sacrifices. At the centre of the grand plaza is a round urn, which had been lit with incense, the grand plaza is still used for mayan traditional ceremonies sometimes. From the grand plaza, it is a short walk to the next temple, which it is possible to climb up, and from there enjoy the amazing view over the rainforest and other temples, which rise out of the rainforest.
On the way back I visited the little museum at the entrance to Tikal. It featured photographs of the early archaeologists from the 1800's that had begun the excavation of Tikal. The lush jungle of the area would have quickly covered the buildings and pyramids after they were abandoned. When the first excavations in the 1840's, the pyramids of Tikal used to be barely visible underneath hundreds of years of jungle growth. Before and after photographs showed that after much machete usage, they were visible once more. There were also photographs of the excavations of the burial sites of Kings and Queens from inside the pyramids. One of the burial sites contained an ornately carved wooden lintel that was on display in the museum. It had previously been used to cover the entrance of a doorway to a tomb.
Immediately after I finished the Acetenango trip, I took the trip up to Xela to start my next trip early the following morning. My next trip was up Mt Tajumulco. Early the next morning we bundled into the back of a pick up truck, on our way towards the bus station to catch a couple more regular buses into the remote highlands where we would start our trip up Tajumulco.
It was a great group, and I was delighted to find some New Zealanders among them. We headed off on a series of local buses. These buses are just great. They are colourful, play music and the buses have a warm community feel to them. They are kinda crowded sure, but they are also 1/5th of the price of the fancy buses! What's not to like?!!
Before long we got to our starting point and started our trek. We were deep in the Mayan heartland. Several mayan languages are spoken. It is also quite close to the Mexican border to the north.
We headed up, and passed through farmland and then up into the woody pine forest towards our campsite. We made good time and got to the campsite early, so we decided to take a sidetrip to another peak. The weather stayed good for us, which was great. Apparently it often rains!
We had a delicious meal and settled down for the night. It was definitely cold, our campsite was at 4000m, so we had only 200 odd metres to go the next morning.
After dinner I quickly retreated to my tent. I piled on every layer and beanie I had and tightened the drawstring on my sleeping bag. After so many weeks in the tropics I was not used to such cool temperatures!
Before long, the first rays of light started to shine through the clouds as the dawn arrived. The wind started to blow the clouds away and reveal amazing views - to Mexico in the north, across to the Pacific ocean in the West and in the distance, other volcanic peaks, including Acetanango and Fuego in the South.
We made it to the top of central America!
This trip was led by an amazing group called Quetzal trekkers. All of the profits from the organisation go to two charities, one provides funding for schooling for former street children and children from low income families. The other charity is an orphanage and school in the Xela area. In total of USD$100,000 has been raised so far for these great charities. Our guides were volunteers. It was great to do such a fantastic trip as well as contribute to these great projects. If you are interested in trekking in Guatemala. I highly recommend Quetzal trekkers!
Mt. Acetenango is the third highest peak in Guatemala. It can be seen from the town of Antigua. It overlooks the highly active volcano Volcan de Fuego. Fuego constantly erupts, sending giant rocks flying, billowing clouds of ash into the sky, and sends molten lava streaming down its slopes.
I signed up for a group trip up Acetenango, and we started the hike from some cornfields resting on its slopes. The track continued up through some cloud forest, and then into some misty pine forest where we reached our camp for the night.
Guatemala is a tropical country, but the sheer altitude made our camp pretty chilly. It was also misty. We could hear Volcan Fuego erupting (it was about every hour!) but because of the cloud, we couldn't see it at all.
We made a fire and the guides cooked tortillas. I hoped that I'd get a glimpse of Fuego the following morning!
The next morning we were up at 3:30am to get to the summit in time to see the dawn. I was pleased to see that the sky had cleared and we were now able to see Volcan Fuego. On the way up it erupted - and was sending glowing lava everywhere - kind of like a fountain. It was pretty spectacular. I tried to take a photo - but my camera is not powerful enough to capture it in the dark. Anyway, I found a photo which I've pasted above which I hope you like. There was not quite as much lava in the eruption I saw, but it was still amazing!
We kept heading up, and started to see the view below in the dawn.
We kept on heading up and got beautiful views from the summit. On the way down Fuego erupted two times, both times sending plumes of ash into the air. Overall, it was an amazing trip, and I'm so glad that the weather was good enough to allow us good views.
Antigua is a beautiful town, surrounded by volcanoes. Its altitude (1500m) makes it a tiny bit cooler. For the first time on my Central american adventure I have needed to wear a jacket! While I've been here I've bought some Mayan weaving at the colourful markets. Antigua has some attractive historic buildings, as it was once the be the capital of Guatemala. It also has some interesting ruins, knocked down by earthquakes that crop up in this volcanic area.
I am now in El Salvador, and while I've been here I have visited two of the neighbouring volcanoes. One was called the Puerto Del Diablo (door of the Devil) and the other is called El Boqueron or Quezaltepeque or Volcan San Salvador. Plenty of names to choose from!
First we went to Puerto Del Diablo. I found an interesting little folk story about the name of the mountain, here it is...
"Legend has it that in times of settlers, the daughter of landowners Renderos, was courted by the very Prince of Darkness himself. Her father, Pedro Renderos, was determined not to allow her into the clutches of Lucifer, and went in pursuit of him when night fell. The evil, beset by all the tenants of the landowner, fled through the mountains and knocked down part of one with a blow.
This is why the arch carved in this mountain is called Devil's Gate".
Despite it's devilish name, mountain itself was very tranquil and lovely, and offered great views of San Salvador, and we could even see all the way to the Pacific ocean and over to Honduras on the other side.
From the top of the mountain a family were playing with a lovely handmade kite.
My great guide, Victor and I headed off for the next volcano, El Boqueron / Quezaltepeque / Volcan San Salvador (as you like it). The city of San Salvador is surrounded by stunning volcanic peaks, and this mountain is one of the most predominant. El Salvador in general is full of volcanoes. These provide an excellent environment for growing coffee, which grows particularly well on all the high volcanic slopes. This is why El Salvador, although not being a big country, is one of the world's top coffee producers.
El Boqueron / Quezaltepeque / Volcan San Salvador is a mountain that erupted only quite recently. It has two huge craters, and as recently as 1917 it erupted and lava flowed down its sides, destroying buildings as it went.
On the way back from the mountain we stopped off at some plains where we got great views of the volcano and could see the remains of a huge lava flow. All n all it was a great day, and I'm glad I had such a knowledgeable guide to show me these amazing volcanoes!